Articles By Matt Taliaferro

All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/restoring-daytonas-dignity
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by Vito Pugliese

The Daytona 500 has had a few choice nicknames foisted upon it over the last 53 years – chief among them, “The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.” That being said, if it is going to have such a grand title attached to it, might it be time to start seriously treating racing’s biggest event as the “Super Bowl” it’s been advertised as for the last five decades?

Speedweeks in Daytona have always has been a fortnight spectacle leading up to the main event, with Saturday’s Bud Shootout, Sunday’s qualifying and Thursday’s twin Gatorade Duel qualifying races. The NFL now takes two weeks to lead up to its main event, in a way taking a page from NASCAR, by playing the Pro Bowl the weekend before the Super Bowl itself.

The Bud Shootout — NASCAR’s version of a Pro Bowl — used to be for pole winners from the prior season only. It was exclusive. Then it was expanded to include past winners of the event itself, which is fair enough. However, all you have to do is win a points-paying event at Daytona or be a good rookie in a bad class to qualify. Really? No offense to Derrike Cope, Jimmy Spencer, Greg Sacks or Kevin Conway, but isn’t the primer for the season’s biggest event a bit watered down if the barriers to entry are constantly lowered?

In the same vein, qualifying needs to mean something as well, and with the top 35 rule in place (and no bonus points for a pole) the Bud Shootout needs to be made for pole or past Shootout winners only.

From sport to show
Perhaps the biggest issue now facing the Daytona 500 — and NASCAR in general — is the practice of describing it not as pure competition, but as “putting on a show.” The 500 needs to be presented as the sporting event it is, not just “some show for the fans.” It represents the pinnacle of North American auto racing, after all. “Putting on a show” should be the realm of the Drifting crowd, WWE and Monster Jam; not a 200 mph chess match on NASCAR’s grandest stage.

It wasn’t that long ago, perhaps six or seven years back, that the Daytona 500 was generally assumed to have surpassed the Indianapolis 500 as the most important race in the country. In the last few years, though, the 500 has lost a little bit of its luster. From the advent of multiple restarts with no firm end distance on which to strategize, changing the rules on the final lap about racing back to the line when cars are upside down and on fire, to the track crumbling apart and fixed with glue, the two-week Daytona 500 experience has been bastardized to the point of becoming as irritating as it is interesting.

An unqualified success
Part of the problem is that the event’s unique qualifying procedure, designed to create as much interest and genuine drama as the race itself, has been negated by NASCAR’s antiquated and unnecessary top 35 rule. If an owner showed up to enough races last year, chances are he’s good to go for the following season’s first race and the four that follow. The Past Champion’s Provisional further complicates matters, with teams taking advantage of a retired former champion to conjure up a start-and-park effort. Thursday’s qualifying races used to really mean something for determining who made the big race versus who had to rely on qualifying speeds — and who would be on the trailer going home. Not so anymore.

While the Daytona 500 is still one of 36 races used to determine a champion, might it be time to revamp the rules to make this a premier event to attract more teams, sponsors and drivers to try and qualify for The Great American Race? The final 10 races are what really determine the championship anyway, with the first 26 largely ignored in the final tally, so why not make Daytona a wide-open event that rivals the prestige of a title once again?

The need for speed
Speaking of “wide open,” the buzz following Saturday’s Bud Shootout centered around speeds. For the first time since the late 1980s, average speeds eclipsed 200 mph, topping out at just over 206. Nothing bad happened — there were a couple of two-car incidents and one semi-big one on the backstretch — but no one got airborne, no one ended up on their lid and a back end never so much as lifted off the ground. Despite that, there was a technical bulletin released Sunday, mandating changes to the front grille openings and the pressure of the cooling system to prevent two cars from flying in formation for too long.

For some reason, NASCAR pegs the 200 mph barrier as the “Danger Zone” where all hell breaks loose, and the precipice of utter ruin and unfathomable sorrow. Never mind that it is the low- to mid-190 mph mark where things traditionally go wrong in a big way. Things changed when Bobby Allison had a bias-ply tire come apart at 210 mph, blowing the quarter panel off his car at Talladega in 1987, causing his car to go skyward. To quote Sterling Marlin following “The Big One” at Talladega in 2001: “These cars need to be runnin’ 200 mile an are.”

During qualifying on Sunday, the cars were barely running 180 mph through the corners. However, Wednesday morning witnessed a further shrinking of restrictor plates, thus throttling the speeds back another two or three mph in the draft.

Things don’t pick up until there are a pair of cars hooked nose to tail pushing along in tandem, and with the new surface, there is an immense amount of grip that suddenly can vanish — the break away being very sudden and non-linear. Passing was possible with a pusher during the Shootout, but handling, which is usually the hallmark of a Daytona race, will have to wait a couple of years once the asphalt ages and wears a bit. The 30-plus year old surface with lumps and bumps that was just replaced had character that the new pavement will take time to develop.

Oh by the way, there is a race this weekend
One thing that has been conspicuous in its absence this year is the lack of marketing behind a race that holds so much history and so many great finishes. The Super Bowl has 11 years less from which to pull, yet highlights abound of past games during the buildup to Super Bowl Sunday. NASCAR doesn’t seem to show many beyond the 1979 fight, Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 victory, the controversial 2007 finish and the tragic events on the last lap in 2001.

Note: there were 48 other races to showcase, as well as the beach action and racing up A1A. Instead, there is continued obsessing over the fourth different points system used in the last nine seasons and how the crew chief swap at Hendrick Motorsports might work in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favor.

Speaking of the Super Bowl and Daytona 500 coverage, FOX’s idea behind promoting NASCAR’s biggest race was a pair of commercials that featured a guy jumping on manhole covers and a broken Ferris Wheel. What, those E-Trade talking babies or The Black Eyed Peas didn’t want any of that? You have the largest television audience of the year for a sporting event in the Super Bowl and you do absolutely nothing of any substance to try to market, advertise and/or build interest in what is always one of the greatest races of the year?

There is a lot here that needs to be addressed before the Daytona 500 reclaims the luster it has lost in the last few years before it is recognized as being on the same plane as the Super Bowl. But take heart NASCAR fans: We know for a fact the National Anthem and the flyover won’t be screwed up at our event and seating is never an issue.

Teaser:
<p> The Great American Race has seemingly lost some of it luster in recent years.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 18:11
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-3-jeff-gordon
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2011 Driver Countdown

No. 24 Driver to End Hunger/DuPont Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson

Years with current team: 19
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)

Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: August 4, 1971


2011 Spin
When, exactly, did Jeff Gordon become an elder statesman in NASCAR? The driver once known as “Wonderboy” when he came to the Cup Series so impossibly young to be so good is now set to turn 40 midway through 2011. Among active, full-time drivers, only Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte have more starts, and no one’s been in his current ride longer.

This year will be Gordon’s 19th full season in the Sprint Cup ranks, all with Hendrick Motorsports, and what a career he’s had: His 82 wins rank highest among active drivers; his four championships rank fourth all-time; and his 274 top-5 finishes make up nearly half (45 percent) of his starts. No matter what happens from here, Gordon will go down as one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Yet his 2010 season made some scratch their heads and wonder if the years had finally caught up to him. For only the second time since 1994, Gordon didn’t win, but it was the way in which he lost that was alarming. From poor pit calls to self-induced mistakes, a man once revered for closing the deal turned into a virtual on-track charity, auctioning off multiple races on late restarts. Left powerless down the stretch, his pit crew was donated to teammate Jimmie Johnson, who captured a fifth straight title. Instead, he’s now trailing a former protégé with his last trip to the head table at the banquet a decade old. Is NASCAR’s golden child losing his gilded shine?

In short: No way. Gordon has struggled with the current car — that’s no secret — but 2010 was a year in which Hendrick Motorsports struggled as an organization. The spoiler change threw the best driver of his age a curveball, not a knockout punch. Looking at NASCAR history, he’s still capable of entering a second prime, as seven drivers have won championships at age 40 or older.

And let’s not discount this driver’s biggest asset: He’s pissed off. Those were the words used in reference to Johnson multiple times last spring, with Gordon fed up with how his teammate wrested positions away from him on track. That smoldering desire makes Gordon dangerous, and now in a weird twist, the master has a chance to emerge from the pupil’s shadow.

There was massive restructuring within the Hendrick Motorsports organization in the offseason, and Gordon may well have gotten the biggest slice of the pie. He’ll move into a new shop, new cars, and a new team, taking over the former No. 5, which will be renumbered with the 24 that fans have loved to hate for years. That gives Gordon a brilliant crew chief in Alan Gustafson, whose technical knowledge comes at a crucial point in the driver’s career, as he’s struggled with the CoT while Gustafson has thrived. And while Steve Letarte struggled to make the right calls with Gordon, it was Gustafson who kept bad cars competitive last spring with Mark Martin because of some timely track position strategy. Together, this pair could be dangerous.

Their relationship will be put to the test early, especially at the mile-and-a half and larger tracks. Those became deep, dark places where Gordon endured nine finishes of 22nd or worse — some early, promising runs deteriorating into only one top-5 finish on the six Chase intermediates.

Gordon will have a different look to his car as DuPont, primary sponsor for his entire career, scales back to a 14-race deal while the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger comes on board for 22 events. With that deal comes financial security, as all backers are signed through 2013, Gustafson 2014, and Gordon as long as he wants thanks to a lifetime contract.

Most important, Gordon’s changes will distance him from Johnson, a once-close friendship hurt by the mentor ending every year a dutiful bridesmaid. Some might say he’s OK with that, assuming a veteran leadership role at a time when two kids and a beautiful wife leave him partially tuned out. But others believe Gordon’s far from satisfied. And if last year’s frustration carries over, Hendrick’s offseason swap should make this man more motivated than ever.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

It’s far from a foregone conclusion that Gordon’s winning ways are over. “It’s kind of ridiculous to think about a driver who has done what Gordon’s done and then call him the sleeper of the field,” says a rival crew chief. “I think the whole team shuffle at Hendrick is really designed to make the 24 (Gordon) stronger. I think (new crew chief) Alan Gustafson might lift the 24 team up a lot.”

Says another, “Anybody who thinks Gordon has grown complacent is looking at the stats, not him in the car. He’s more aggressive than he was five years ago. He wants it more. He’s just not getting it … yet.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Can always be counted on for ultra-strong runs at Darlington and Martinsville.
Pretty Solid Pick: Most anywhere, honestly. He’s got 82 career wins, after all.
Good Sleeper Pick: It’s hard to define Gordon as a sleeper, but he hasn’t won a points race at Daytona since 2005 and can still get it done.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Homestead is Super G’s Lex Luthor.
Insider Tip: Gordon has only four wins since the CoT’s introduction in 2007. Gustafson’s input should be the difference.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 11
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 919
Laps Completed: 10,545
Lead Lap Finishes: 30
Bonus Points: 115
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 12.7
Average Finish: 13.4
After First 26 Races: 10th
Final Points Standing: 9th
Driver Rating: 98.5 (2nd)

 

Teaser:
<p> Jeff Gordon looks to bounce back with new crew chief Alan Gustafson in 2011. Gordon clocks in at No. 3 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-4-clint-bowyer
Body:

Teaser:
<p> Looking for a darkhorse pick to unseat the mighty Johnson Juggernaut? Look no further than Clint Bowyer.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-5-tony-stewart
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner: Tony Stewart
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb

Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: n/a
Best points finish: 1st (2002, ’05)

Hometown: Columbus, Ind.
Born: May 20, 1971


2011 Spin
If championships define a driver, then Tony Stewart is a Renaissance man. His national titles span international go-karting, an elusive USAC Triple Crown, Indy Cars and two in the NASCAR Cup Series. Stewart’s as much at home in the Indianapolis 500 as the Brickyard 400, and he can still wheel a dirt late model at Eldora as well as many who do it for a living. Fittingly, he drives the No. 14 of his hero, A.J. Foyt — possibly the only other driver in North American motorsports whose résumé is so decorated — and does so proudly.

In short, Stewart is the most versatile driver in NASCAR. He is also one of the biggest talents the racing world has known in recent years, despite a letdown season in 2010 when he notched two victories but finished seventh in points and never seriously contended in the Chase. Entering the postseason hotter than any team, Stewart and Co. had one ugly fuel mileage decision in the Chase’s first event at Loudon that led to running out of gas approaching the white flag while leading, resulting in a missed opportunity for a team that never fully rebounded from the disappointing 24th-place showing.

But despite advancing age — the most recent Cup champion not named Jimmie Johnson turns 40 in 2011 — Stewart remains as poised as ever for a title bid. Stewart’s greatest asset remains his car control. He can save a car that most others would put in the fence, while finessing one to a better finish than should be possible. And while “Smoke” would like to think differently — at one point last June, the driver said, “For anybody that’s looking for drama, I’m going to make the highlight reel these next few weeks” — Stewart was noticeably absent from NASCAR’s “Boys, have at it” routine. He has matured in recent years, holding his tongue and temper — well, in America anyway — so that it rarely costs him on the racetrack.

With Hendrick chassis and engines, there’s no doubt that Stewart has the equipment to match any driver, any day. He might be getting a few horsepower less than the HMS fold, but he can make up for that with sheer ability. Crew chief Darian Grubb is a longtime Hendrick engineer and technically excellent. He’s won the Daytona 500 with Johnson, the Coca-Cola 600 with Casey Mears, and, since joining Stewart, has six more wins under his belt as well as an All-Star victory.

Sponsorship hasn’t come as easily for Stewart the team owner. Office Depot and Burger King return, but a search to replace Old Spice took four months before Mobil 1 was signed. While Stewart’s team is by no means underfunded, Mobil 1’s backing brought a sigh of relief.

With finances in order, Stewart must improve in two key areas to contend for a 2011 title — his team’s short track program and its performance in the Chase. Fourteen of Stewart’s 17 top 10s in 2010 came on tracks 1.5 miles or longer, while posting a disgusting average finish of 19.7 on those less than a mile. It’s a surprising statistic, considering the shorts are teammate Ryan Newman’s biggest strength. If the two compare notes, improvement is guaranteed, but Stewart — traditionally strongest in the summer — also needs to figure out how to keep the heat turned up in the fall. Though he has a Chase title, he hasn’t been as brilliant during the final 10 races of late, and when the competition comes to life in September, trailing off is no longer an option.

Stewart is an old school driver in a new school world, accomplishing things simply not done in recent memory. Alan Kulwicki was a champion admired for doing it his way and long remembered as the last independent owner/driver to win a title. While Stewart isn’t going it alone in quite the same fashion, he is bucking several trends — winning in his own cars while maintaining a throwback driving style and unique, if toned down, personality. In a vanilla world, Stewart is a habañero pepper. And he can bring the heat.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

What takes Stewart-Haas Racing to the next level? How does Stewart earn a third championship? “I’m wondering if Tony and his team can go any further,” says a crew chief. “For the long run, I question whether you can beat Hendrick Motorsports when you’re getting your cars and engines from them.”

Another crew chief scoffs at that notion: “That might be true if not for the fact that Tony has so many guys who know what they’re doing working for him. Stewart-Haas isn’t exactly a turn-key operation with Hendrick. They get good stuff from Hendrick and make it better.”

Another says, “Stewart has a lot in common with Dale Earnhardt (Sr.). The difference is I don’t think Tony has ever grown up. He’s made some progress, though, since he got his own team.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: For as good as Stewart is across the board, he’s double platinum on the road courses.
Pretty Solid Pick: 18 top 10s (two wins) in 24 Pocono starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Maybe if Rockingham were still around ...
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Still hasn’t won at Darlington, which is surprising.
Insider Tip: Up next on the bucket list is the Daytona 500. Smoke has three July wins on the beach, but hasn’t broken through in February. Expect him to pull out all the stops until that changes.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 537
Laps Completed: 10,738
Lead Lap Finishes: 27
Bonus Points: 110
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 13.2
Average Finish: 13.9
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 7th
Driver Rating: 91.2 (9th)

 

Teaser:
<p> Tony Stewart ushers in the final week of Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown, slotting in at No. 5.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 14, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-monday-recap/earnhardt-gordon-front-row-500
Body:

by Matt Taliaferro

The name “Earnhardt” is synonymous with Daytona International Speedway. The late Dale Earnhardt won a total of 34 races and three poles at the historic speedway, while son Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 13 victories at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Strangely enough, the one win Junior had yet to earn at Daytona was a pole.

That all changed on Sunday, when Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy to the top of the pylon with a fast lap of 186.089 mph, assuring a start on the front row of the Great American Race for a second straight year.

“The main thing (the pole) does for me is take the pressure off Thursday's race,” Earnhardt said of the Gatorade Duels. “I can go out and have fun and not worry about where I finish or getting a good starting spot for the Daytona 500.”

Teaser:
<p> Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon will lead a 43-car field to green in the 53rd annual Daytona 500.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 21:28
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/bud-shootout-raises-questions
Body:

Well, that was … unique.

New-look cars (noses and paint schemes), average speeds well over 200 mph, a surface we knew was Daytona but sure resembled Talladega, two-by-two drafts that evolved into four-car freight trains and the second-place car being deemed the winner.

Yep, NASCAR must be back.

The Budweiser Shootout from Daytona International Speedway typically gives fans and pundits alike a barometer from which to gauge the following weekend’s Daytona 500. But Saturday night’s edition raised more questions than provided answers.

Kurt Busch — long a solid plate racer with a knack for missing the big wreck — scored his first Daytona win, even though he was beat to the finish line by three one-thousandths of a second by Denny Hamlin. However, NASCAR ruled Hamlin ducked below the yellow “out of bounds” line to make the race-winning pass of Ryan Newman. Therefore, Hamlin was relegated to a 12th-place finish due to his transgression.

While the ending raised issues (the nearly-annual yellow line rule will be dissected once again), the average speeds and two-car drafts will be in the spotlight throughout the week. And most expect NASCAR to make changes to the rules package in the interest of safety and — let’s be honest — excitement.

The 200 mph mark has been the ceiling of speed NASCAR has tolerated on the two plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega). Despite safety improvements, there is no way to predict what a car will do when turned sideways or backward at that rate of speed. And following a car-in-the-grandstands near-miss at Talladega two seasons ago, NASCAR is more vigilant than ever about keeping the action within the field of play.

A $20 million repave of Daytona has produced increased grip and low tire wear that, combined with cool temperatures and mechanics’ ingenuity, had in-draft average speeds at 206 mph on Saturday evening. Concurrently, driver ingenuity gleaned from races at Talladega and January testing at Daytona has spawned the two-car draft phenomenon.

Unlike in the past, two cars hooked together are actually faster than a four-, five- or six-car, single-file draft. This due to the lead car acting as the steering wheel and brake, while the follower the engine and spoiler. This new plate-track version of “co-opetition,” as Darrell Waltrip so accurately dubs it, holds true to the old axiom that if “two’s a party, three’s a crowd.” In short, the third car brings nothing to the table, and is actually a liability.

“The front car (in the two-car pack) gets the clean air, the motor,” Second-place finisher Ryan Newman said. “The back car takes the air off the front car's spoiler. Even though he gets the air taken out of his motor, he's still pushing the car in front of him and he's getting that help. If there was that third car he doesn't have the air in the column to help propel him forward, so the front car has got the biggest motor, the second car is just helping push along, and the way the drag works out.”

The question on everyone’s minds, though, is whether NASCAR will make changes to handicap the two-car advantage or adjust spoilers or restrictor plates to bring speeds down. Drivers were varied in their opinions about what, if anything, should be done, while NASCAR’s competition director, Robin Pemberton, gave this insight following the event:

“You can do a lot of things,” Pemberton said. “You have to do what’s best for the large group, whatever that is. We’ve talked to some of the engineers and crew chiefs and solicited some different ideas and talked to them about the methodology of how they do things.

“We’ll have to take all that and put it together. We’ve got some time. That’s the good news, being Saturday. We’ve got some ideas. We just have to get together and talk about them.”

Reading in between the lines, changes are coming. How extensive they are and how they change the complexion of the draft remain to be seen.

Teaser:
<p> A unique Bud Shootout will most likely precipitate changes to Daytona 500 with speeds in excess of 206 mph.</p>
Post date: Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 12:26
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/strategy-key-2011
Body:

by Mike Neff

There have always been races decided by strategy over speed in NASCAR, but pit calls in 2011 may play a bigger factor in race results than ever before. NASCAR has changed some rules for the upcoming racing season that will make the crew chiefs’ decisions more difficult and more critical than at any time in the past.

E15 fuel and the resulting change in fueling rigs, the elimination of the catch can man and stricter limits on tires during the race will have an impact on what crew chiefs decide during pit stops — and ultimately who wins many of the races this season.

NASCAR changed the fueling rules in the Camping World Truck Series last year, going to a self-venting dump can. With the advent of E15 fuel (an ethanol blend) in all of the national touring series, it became necessary to implement the can in all three touring series to minimize the potential for moisture entering the fuel system. With the self-venting can, the teams no longer need a catch can man over the wall, which has not only put several men out of a job, but thrown a curveball to crew chiefs up and down pit road.

In the past, the catch can man made all of the chassis adjustments during pit stops while holding the catch can in place. Whether making a wedge or track bar adjustment, the crewman would engage the can and then use a long-handled ratchet to alter the chassis settings that were accessible through the rear window. With the catch can now out of the equation, the person making the alterations will differ depending on the team. About half of the crew chiefs surveyed during the recent NASCAR Media Tour felt that the rear tire carrier would make the adjustments no matter what the call. However, the other half had a far different view of the new choreography of a pit stop.

The various scenarios that arise during a stop will cause different people to have different responsibilities when the car makes its way to pit road. If a team is only changing two tires, then the tire carrier should have plenty of time to make chassis changes. However, during a four-tire stop the tire carrier needs to quickly get back to the left side of the car, thus slowing the stop if a chassis adjustment is needed. If the car doesn’t need a full fuel load, the fuel man may be responsible for dumping one can and then making chassis changes.

Some teams are even experimenting with utilizing two men who will act as fuel men and tire carriers. In this instance, the right side tire carrier will come back and grab the second can of gas while the first will dump his can, make the changes, then grab the left-rear tire.

As you can see, the scenarios can build up quickly, and some crew chiefs are exploring every possible aspect to minimize the amount of time spent in the pits. The chiefs at Stewart-Haas Racing are even considering having their crew members wear wrist bands like NFL quarterbacks with different numbered “plays,” depending on what the situation calls for, with each member having different duties for different scenarios.

One other aspect of the new dump can that will cause some serious heartburn for crew chiefs is the fact that the flow of fuel out of the can is slower than it was under the old system. New cans take approximately 14 seconds to dump a full fuel load into a car. With teams routinely clicking off sub-13 second pit stops, crew chiefs must decide whether they want to have a full fuel load or better track position. If a team waits for the full load, other teams will beat them off pit road by pulling their fuel can as soon as the rear tire changer is finished.

The teams will be forced to spend even more time studying individual race history, trying to determine the possibility of runs going green for a full fuel load or if caution flags will interrupt the race in the waning laps, allowing for an extra stop. Whatever the trends, there will always be situations where the race doesn’t go according to Hoyle. The call to fill or not to fill is going to factor numerous times throughout the season.

NASCAR is also limiting the number of tires teams are allowed to use during practice and the race. In the past, there was a soft limit, but teams were allowed to “borrow” tires from other teams that dropped out of a race, so theoretically they had more tires than they could possibly use.

With the new rule, there will be different amounts of tires depending on the track and the length of the race, but every team will be limited to what they’re allotted and will not simply be able to change tires during each stop — a no-brainer in the past. In addition, teams will be limited on the number of tires they can use for practice sessions, which will put an emphasis on time management because practice times are now used to determine qualifying order. Timing practice schedules so that they have a fresh set of tires to bolt on when the conditions are optimal to lay down a fast lap will be the order of the day. The limit on tires will most likely have an impact on the fueling strategy, as well, because teams that don’t take tires will be limited by the time it takes to dump fuel and may only take one can to limit time spent on pit lane.

The crew chief has been a critical link in the racing chain for years, but the pressure to make the right calls is going to be greater than ever in 2011. Tony Gibson, crew chief of the No. 39 team, was asked whether he believes that calls from the pit box could ultimately decide who wins the championship in 2011.

“Absolutely,” was his quick and sure-fire response.

Cup racing has always been a copycat sport, and this season — especially over the first month — will witness more pit road procedural theft than at any time in the past. If Gibson is correct, how each team handles the new rules will not only determine how individual races unfold, but how a championship is won.
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff says strategy on pit road will be at a premium this season.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 11, 2011 - 15:17
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-6-kyle-busch
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 18 M&M’s/Wrigley Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Dave Rogers

Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 5th (2007)

Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: May 2, 1985


2011 Spin
It is often said that a man can be his own worst enemy. At times, it seems like that particular phrase was written explicitly for Kyle Busch. There is no doubting that Busch has talent to spare. In 2010 alone, he scored 24 wins in NASCAR’s top three series, a modern-era record, and on any given weekend he has the capability to dominate a race. But Busch is just as likely to make headlines on Monday morning for his erratic behavior and temper, the key reason this talented young driver is never given serious consideration as a true title contender where it matters most: Sprint Cup.

Take 2010 as an example. As “focused” as Busch was, making a NASCAR-high 81 starts in the Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, he was just as busy making new “friends.” First, there was the chiding of Boris Said in Atlanta following a practice wreck that did little more than cosmetic damage. Then, there was the All-Star Race accident with Denny Hamlin in May that even had Busch spewing death threats toward his teammate on the radio. Three months later, it was Busch vs. Brad Keselowski at Bristol in the Nationwide Series, followed by Busch vs. David Reutimann at Kansas that effectively ended any championship hopes he had.

But the kicker for Kyle was an incident at Texas, where a single-finger salute to a NASCAR official and a tirade over the radio summarize why, until he grows up, Busch will fall short of championship material. His emotions run wild, a type of petulant, childish behavior when things go wrong that leaves everyone struggling to remain supportive in times of crisis.

“(Kyle) gets so uptight that, every now and then, he makes mistakes,” said team owner Joe Gibbs after Busch was given a two-lap penalty, fined, and placed on probation for the Texas incident. “We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

It’s easier said than done, even with a great motivator like Gibbs leading the way. And how much longer will crew chief Dave Rogers want to put up with it before he looks to follow Steve Addington out the door? An uneven ending to the season for that partnership with sniping on the radio has many wondering just how good the chemistry is behind closed doors. Even Hamlin has voiced frustration with the way Busch communicates; it’s an internal rivalry that seems to leave most siding with Gibbs’ veteran driving leader — not NASCAR’s Bad Boy.

On the plus side, Busch returns in 2011 with his team virtually intact, with strong sponsorship from M&M’s, Wrigley and Interstate Batteries and a multi-year contract of his own in hand. However, an insistence to race in all three series, considering Busch also serves as owner/driver for his Truck Series operation, can leave him both temperamental and worn out heading into Cup races. Sponsorship problems remain on the Truck side, too, leaving Busch with financial strain and additional stress he doesn’t need.

His Cup team has a few kinks to work out on mile-and-a-half tracks — Busch hasn’t won on one since Las Vegas in March 2009 — but to be honest, he has the equipment needed to win. The one gaping weakness that must be fixed is one place no mechanic can reach: his head.

“Even in my relatively short time here in NASCAR, it’s pretty obvious to everyone that I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” Busch said in a statement after the Texas trouble. “Sometimes that passion has allowed me to find that little something extra I needed to win, and other times it’s made me cross the line.”

Those words make it seem, albeit for a moment, like Busch is learning. But considering he ended the season with another wrecked racecar following a run-in with Kevin Harvick, after which the two exchanged verbal jabs, it doesn’t seem like he can stay on the good boy wagon for long.

People may criticize Jimmie Johnson for being “too vanilla” and “boring,” but he is the one currently looking for a place to stash a fifth straight championship trophy. For Busch to take his game to the next level, he needs to back up what he says with his actions on the track, because while winning races is nice, it doesn’t bring titles.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Busch is seen by some as the uncrowned champion in waiting. “I’d work with him in a heartbeat,” says another driver’s crew chief. “He’s got so much talent that you can’t help but wish you had that guy in your car. A guy who can drive like that takes pressure off his crew chief because the car doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Another says, “I laugh every time I hear somebody say something about ‘the new Kyle Busch.’ He’s just one wreck, one bad break, away from showing his ass again. But part of that’s what makes him such a winner. He hates to lose, and it’s not just talk.”

Another crew chief says, “He’s either going to wind up as this great talent who never quite fulfilled it, or he’s going to get his head on straight and reel off some championships. I know it’s getting old to say this, but he’s still got plenty of time.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Most anywhere. He’s streaky, so let the previous two or three runs guide you.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s currently the King of Bristol. Although it runs in shifts.
Good Sleeper Pick: If he can avoid the wreck, he could win the Daytona 500.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s typically thrown in the towel by Homestead. Or gotten wrecked there.
Insider Tip: What are we going to do with you, Kyle? Channel all that emotion into the right place and you could win every other race.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 18
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 1,271
Laps Completed: 10,607
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 115
Races Led: 19
Average Start: 15.8
Average Finish: 14.0
After First 26 Races: 4th
Final Points Standing: 8th
Driver Rating: 98.2 (3rd)

 

Teaser:
<p> He has all the potential in the world, but Kyle Busch's "checkers or wreckers" mentality land him at No. 6 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 11, 2011 - 09:50
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-7-greg-biffle
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 16 3M Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Greg Erwin

Years with current team: 9
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2005)

Hometown: Vancouver, Wash.
Born: December 23, 1969


2011 Spin
There comes a time in each driver’s career when he finds himself at a crossroads, and 2011 could be that year for Greg Biffle. Both his sponsorship and contract run through the end of the season, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on how well the situation is handled.

You might think it foolish for Roush Fenway Racing to let go of a driver who has finished in the top 10 in points the last three seasons and remains hungry in his bid to become the first driver to win a title in each of NASCAR’s three top series. But at 41 years old, Biffle is advancing in age to the point that sponsorship isn’t a slam dunk in the boardroom, especially since he’s not exactly Mr. Personality and is more comfortable welding sheet metal than pitching product.

To get the right type of financial backing over the long term, he must perform at a title-contending level throughout the year. Step one in that process is for the Greg Erwin-led No. 16 team to step off the rollercoaster and back on solid ground. After posting six top-10 finishes to start 2010, Biffle never had more than two straight until November, becoming an expert in between at snuffing out momentum before it started. His two victories were followed by finishes of 24th and 41st, respectively, the perfect example of how this team zigzagged all over the chart.

When it’s on, there’s potential for the 16 bunch to be the best Blue Oval team in camp. Only Carl Edwards matched Biffle’s two-victory total at Roush, and with 16 overall wins in nine seasons he’s quietly racked up some quality stats. The Erwin-Biffle pairing is nearly four years old, a stability that trickles down inside a four-car organization that plans to return the same driver, sponsor and head wrench lineup for 2011. With Biffle bringing up the rear of an RFR four-five-six points finish, it’s important to note that RFR’s three top teams remained successful even in a down year. And just like his teammates, Biffle ended last season on a hot streak with three straight top 10s, leaving him hopeful for 2011.

“I think we are positioned really good for (this) year. I expect a lot of exciting things for 2011,” he said last November. “Maybe four or five wins and a run for the title, I hope.”

Let’s hope the parts and pieces get that message. Mechanical failures seem to hit Biffle at the worst possible time, two costly engine DNFs mixed with countless other complaints about brakes, drive trains … seemingly every part under the sun. And as Denny Hamlin showed last year, it’s not the number of wins that will finally dethrone Jimmie Johnson and the Hendrick juggernaut, but rather consistency in the final 10 races. That’s something Biffle has struggled with, earning only nine top 10s in the last 20 Chase races coupled with four results outside the top 20.

Reliability issues boil down to the FR9 engine, prepped and ready for its first full season of competition in 2011. The horsepower it’s produced has been magical, but despite delays in production, a handful of failures late in the postseason leave many wondering if further tuneups are needed. The transition at Richard Petty Motorsports could also play a factor with Biffle, who credits research from that “B” program with turning around the organization last summer. With only a two-car program, new investors and a different support system, it’s unclear how much help it will be should RFR engineering fall behind in 2011.

Biffle and the Ford camp certainly have reason to be optimistic based on how the season ended, but so do teammates Edwards and Matt Kenseth, both of whom have found more success late in the season. While the talent and equipment are there to get the job done, when there are more attractive options to choose from within your own program, chances are the title won’t tilt your way. Just call it “The Jeff Gordon Rule.”


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The recurring word used to describe Biffle is “fast.” A crew chief says, “Roush Fenway’s whole operation was off for the first half of the year, then the whole team started improving. Usually that carries over. That was the case with RCR last year, and it’s probably going to be a big year for Roush Fenway for the same reason.”

Another crew chief says, “You know what? Biffle is as close to a throwback as any driver out there. He paid his dues, didn’t get to Cup when he was a kid, and his attitude, that gritty determination, reminds me of guys from a couple decades back.”

A familiar face in the garage says, “I like Biffle’s no-nonsense style. He’s a straight shooter. He always gives it his best. Biffle reminds me of Mark Martin sometimes.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: He’s really turned it on at Kansas the last four years with two wins and two third-place finishes.
Pretty Solid Pick: Biffle has 10 top 10s at both Michigan (16 starts) and Dover (17).
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s not thought of as a short tracker, but he has 10 top 10s in 16 starts at Bristol.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Martinsville. Just stay away.
Insider Tip: Thirteen of his 16 career Cup wins have come on the 1.5- and 2-mile ovals. He’s basically Carl Edwards without the backflip. Or the muscles.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 19
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 543
Laps Completed: 10,410
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 70
Races Led: 12
Average Start: 15.9
Average Finish: 15.4
After First 26 Races: 7th
Final Points Standing: 6th
Driver Rating: 88.4 (12th)

 

Teaser:
<p> Greg Biffle's quest to win a title in NASCAR's three touring series continues. However, Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown finds him falling short in 2011.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-8-matt-kenseth
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 17 Crown Royal Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
Owners: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Jimmy Fennig

Years with current team: 12
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 1st (2003)

Hometown: Cambridge, Wis.
Born: March 10, 1972


2011 Spin
In an era when flashy, over-the-top personalities garner the most attention in the headlines, one driver, Matt Kenseth, remains successful with his trademark quiet consistency. Stuck in the middle of the longest winless streak of his career (70 races), the 38-year-old was still able to post a rebound year in 2010, finishing fifth in the final series standings after missing the Chase in ’09. With an upswing like that, you’d think that all Kenseth needs to do is to fine-tune a couple areas and he’ll be fighting for titles again. But until the No. 17 team enjoys stability at crew chief, the 2011 season — and this driver’s career, for that matter — remains a giant question mark going forward.

Kenseth enjoyed a long, successful relationship with head wrench Robbie Reiser, who led the team to the 2003 championship, but since his promotion in 2007 to Roush Fenway general manager, there has been a revolving door atop the pit box of the No. 17. Reiser and Kenseth combined for 15 wins in their last six seasons together, while a ragtag replacement group of Chip Bolen, Drew Blickensderfer, Todd Parrott and current leader Jimmy Fennig have combined for just two since February 2008. The last of those was supposed to be a temporary solution; Fennig was lured out of “on the road” retirement in the team’s R&D department to fill a role seemingly destined to land back in the hands of someone else.

“That’s not fair to say,” said Kenseth when asked point blank if he wouldn’t be happy until Reiser was back leading the team. “Robbie had a chance to come back and do it, but the problem is Robbie wants to do everything, so he didn’t want to leave his post at the front office. There’s a lot more going on and a lot more important things in Roush Fenway Racing than just one team.”

That quote cryptically sounds more like, “I wanted the guy to do it, but everyone’s just being stubborn right now.” The current consensus on the rumor mill is that Kenseth would kill for Reiser to return, but to do that he’d need to convince one important man in particular — owner Jack Roush. But Roush has emphasized that the RFR organization was not making major changes to any of its programs prior to Daytona after his Fords enjoyed a strong 2010 finish across the board.

While Mr. Consistency keeps consistently lobbying behind the scenes, there are other positives to build on heading into the season. Sponsorship from Crown Royal remains solid, as does the rest of the men going over the wall. Kenseth’s “Killer B’s” pit crew, long known to be some of the best in the business, won NASCAR’s Pit Road Season Championship last year. Staying out of trouble is a growing strength, as the veteran finished all 36 races last season for the first time since the schedule expanded in 2001.

The knock on Kenseth is that he’s typically a bad qualifier. His 19.4-average start means improvement on Fridays is a must, as trouble while driving through the pack is a constant danger for anyone. Combine that with a plate race flameout of zero top-5 finishes since he won the 2009 Daytona 500.

But his style is still unquestionable. Often he’s a non-factor during most of the race only to pull a David Pearson and leave you asking, “Where did he come from?” when the checkered flag falls. Add in the Ford FR9 engine full-time in 2011, and he should be able to build on the three straight top-10 finishes he ended last season with. And a victory or two is not out of the question after a long drought.

The question here is, with Reiser not calling the race-day shots, how long will Kenseth stay happy? Like the guy who’s too picky because he can’t get over the “perfect” ex-girlfriend, Kenseth seems to spend his time looking for the other shoe to drop. Until he can jell with a crew chief for more than a year, or few months, Kenseth will remain unable to secure the second title that eludes him.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The last champion before the Chase has qualified for all but one of them (2009). “Kenseth is right there with (teammates) Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards,” says a crew chief. “The difference is that Kenseth didn’t get as fast as the other two. He’s like he always is; he makes the best of what he has. Why does he have a little less? I can’t answer that.”

Another says, “His performance got better late in the year, just like Edwards and Biffle. Maybe his curve was just a little later developing. I think, in terms of 2011, he’s in as good a shape as anyone.”

Adds a third rival crew chief, “Kenseth is probably the best in the sport at making the best of what he’s got. Johnson and Harvick are the only other drivers who are even close.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Auto Club and Michigan. How very Roush of him.
Pretty Solid Pick: Not too shabby at Dover, either, with 10 top 5s in 24 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: Kenseth is not nearly as bad at Charlotte as he’d have you believe.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has scored a top 5 on every track on the circuit except for the two roadies. Avoid accordingly.
Insider Tip: Don’t expect a high win count here, but he’ll be his usual consistent self.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 15
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 108
Laps Completed: 10,770
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 65
Races Led: 13
Average Start: 19.4
Average Finish: 12.8
After First 26 Races: 9th
Final Points Standing: 5th
Driver Rating: 86.0 (14th)

 

Teaser:
<p> Matt Kenseth looks to end a long winless streak in 2011. The wins may not be plentiful, but his consistency will be unquestioned. Kenseth ranks eighth in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-9-joey-logano
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 20 Home Depot Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Greg Zipadelli

Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 16th (2010)

Hometown: Middletown, Conn.
Born: May 24, 1990


2011 Spin
Five years ago, when Mark Martin was asked who he would want to see replace him in the No. 6 he drove at Roush Fenway Racing, he quickly answered with one name — Joey Logano.

Joey who? At the time, not many had heard of the teenager, who was the tender age of 15 then, but they knew that Martin had an eye for talent after he had a similar revelation about future champ Matt Kenseth.

“I am high on Joey Logano because I am absolutely, 100 percent positive, without a doubt, that he can be one of the greatest that ever raced in NASCAR,” Martin said.
Now that he’s entering his third full season of competition, the time has come for Logano to show the promise that had Martin so excited about his future.

In his rookie year, Logano won a rain-shortened event in New Hampshire, and while he went winless in his sophomore season, there’s no reason to dub 2010 a sophomore slump. Yes, he was shut out of Victory Lane, but he improved in every other major category: top 5s, top 10s, poles earned, laps led and his position in points.

Yet 2011 might be the most telling season of all for Martin’s prophecy, as the last five Sprint Cup champions have had career-changing efforts in year No. 3. Jeff Gordon had seven wins and a title in his third year; Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch all had multiple-win seasons in their third campaigns, learning how to compete for a title before following up with the championship in year No. 4. Then there’s Jimmie Johnson, who scored eight wins and a runner-up points finish in his third full season — and we all know what he’s done after that.

That’s a lot of pressure for a young man who turns 21 this year, still searching to find his place in the Sprint Cup Series and earn the respect that goes along with it. Last season, he had a heated run-in at Michigan with Ryan Newman, who said, “I'm just trying to teach the little kid how to drive,” as they were being separated in the garage area after discussing their on-track issues. Add that to the infamous firesuit comment about Kevin and DeLana Harvick after Pocono, plus wrecking Juan Pablo Montoya at Homestead in an act of retaliation, and it’s obvious Joey isn’t going to let other drivers just run over him because he’s young and inexperienced.

“I think we probably missed the fire that’s inside of Joey,” says team owner Joe Gibbs of the media’s initial perception of him. “I think he does have a real fire, a real passion for what he does.”

That’s an important trait to develop in the uber-competitive sport of NASCAR. The key is not allowing that fire to boil over and become a hindrance. But Logano is in good hands with the team that surrounds him (temperamental teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin notwithstanding). He has Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who knows a thing or two about handling and getting the best out of hotheaded drivers (hello, Tony Stewart). They also have the equipment and knowledge that will continue to help Logano climb to the next level, and the young man himself seems to understand both patience and his role in making the team better.

“Knowing what you want in the car at certain race tracks, that’s something that you figure out as you keep going,” the youngster said late last season. “Some places, I think I have that really figured out. Some places, it’s unknown.

“It all comes together, a bunch of little things. It’s not one big thing, a light switch goes on and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, now I got it.’ It definitely takes a bit of time trying to figure it out. And it takes a lot of hard work.”

With five top-10 finishes in the last six races of 2010, the hard work seems to be paying off, and the team looks to be on the right track. Whether or not he’s ready to perform up to Martin’s lofty expectations and take that next big step is something only time will tell. But if you’re using history as a guide when looking for a first-time Chase sleeper, Logano’s your man.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Logano’s impressive performance in the final 10 races was a story many overlooked. “In the Chase, he performed like a Chase driver,” says another team’s crew chief. “I think he kind of crossed the barrier in terms of consistency right there at the end of the season. If he keeps it up, he’ll make the Chase this year.”

Another says, “There isn’t much doubt he’s getting it, but I think there’s a still a little of the ‘goofy kid that everybody on the playground wants to pick on’ there. He’s started to stand up for himself, but he’s still got some growing up to do. It’s what happens when you put a kid like that in this series at a young age.”

“He’s proved he belongs,” says another. “The next challenge is to prove he can win from time to time and run up front pretty regular. I still think Logano making the Chase is a little of a stretch.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: His 8.5-place average finish at Charlotte is impressive.
Pretty Solid Pick: Has a knack for Dover, as well, with 10th- and third-place runs last season.
Good Sleeper Pick: Talladega, with three top-10 finishes in four starts.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Atlanta was once JGR’s playground, but not so with Logano.
Insider Tip: Remember, this is a team led by Greg Zipadelli that won two titles with Tony Stewart. Once the driver gets up to speed, this group will be tough.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 16
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 53
Laps Completed: 10,564
Lead Lap Finishes: 23
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 16.2
Average Finish: 16.8
After First 26 Races: 21st
Final Points Standing: 16th
Driver Rating: 80.3 (20th)

 

Teaser:
<p> Joey Logano may only be 20 years old, but the third year Cup competitor is ready to make the jump into the Chase. Logano lands at No. 9 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-10-martin-truex-jr
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 56 NAPA Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
Owner: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman
Crew Chief: Pat Tryson

Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 11th (2007)

Hometown: Mayetta, N.J.
Born: June 29, 1980


2011 Spin
Normally, showing up the boss isn’t the best career move. But in the case of Martin Truex Jr., not only was that process encouraged, but it was hailed as progress after owner/driver Michael Waltrip stepped out of the now-No. 56 seat. Following a dismal 2009 season, Waltrip made the decision to step back from behind the wheel and let someone else take over, luring Truex from a plum ride at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as a replacement. It’s a move that saw limited results. But there is promise on the horizon as the team is expected to fully mature in 2011.

A look at the 2010 stats shows a Chase bid this year might be a long shot, with just one top-5 finish, seven top 10s, 88 laps led and a 22nd-place finish in the final standings. But consider the stats with Waltrip the past three years: a total of one top 5, six top 10s and no points finish higher than 29th. Considering Truex was a surprise postseason contender — he was 16th in points before some unlikely contact with Jeff Gordon helped derail his Chase bid at Infineon last June — how quickly they righted this downtrodden program bodes well for the future.

That focus starts squarely in the shop with the guiding, reasoned hand of crew chief Pat Tryson. A veteran who has seen success with the likes of Kurt Busch and Mark Martin, Tryson has formed an instant chemistry with Truex, and both parties fully believe in each other.

“We’ve continued to fight. We’ve never given up and made some noise this season,” said Truex of his year last November. “We've got some stuff to work on, but we know what we need to work on so I expect to come out of the box strong in 2011.”

Atop the list is something as simple as fixing TRD’s engine program. Michael Waltrip Racing endured seven DNFs for engine failures among drivers Truex, David Reutimann, and JTG Daugherty affiliate Marcos Ambrose, along with over a half-dozen races in which cars went behind the wall for other mechanical issues. You can’t have consistency without reliability, a fault that has seemed to dog MWR since the start of its program in 2007.

Truex also needs to stand up for himself, a trait he learned after Gordon spun him without retribution in a momentum-stealing moment that ruined his season. Often known as the quiet guy, Truex is well liked off the track but perceived to be one of the most passive guys on it, someone who can be pushed around for position. Reutimann, his teammate, shares that trait. Of the two, Truex is more likely to build the backbone needed for success.

“Nice guys finish last,” he said at Loudon last June. “The nice guy gets pushed around, and I’m tired of being the nice guy. I haven’t seen much respect all year, to be honest with you, at the racetrack. Guys take advantage of you every chance they get. We get put in a difficult position because the field is close, every spot means so much, the clean air situation … there’s so much pressure to get everything we can get. I think guys just cross the line too much. I don’t know the answer and how to fix that. I just know how I’m going to do it. I’m just going to do what everyone does to me every week.”

Should Truex live up to his word — getting aggressive when it matters most — the keys are in place for long-term success. He and Reutimann have similar personalities and mesh well together. He’s run well at a variety of tracks, scoring at least one top 10 at a short track, intermediate, flat and restrictor plate ovals in 2010, and is expected to race out of the box strong during Speedweeks in February. Remember, if there’s one thing his boss knows how to help with, it’s winning the Daytona 500. Waltrip’s biggest claim to fame is as a two-time champ, in 2001 and ’03.

We wouldn’t recommend any more “NAPA Know How” karaoke commercials (that might be better left to the boss, too), but the Truex/Tryson relationship is one that could go far, as Waltrip breeds positivity within the No. 56 ranks. In fact, the next song all parties might be singing is in celebration of making the Chase come September.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Truex, who left Earnhardt Ganassi Racing a year ago, suffers in comparison to his successor at his previous team. “I hate to say it and wouldn’t have predicted it,” says a crew chief, “but Jamie McMurray really made Truex look bad. Martin’s a good guy and a real good driver. Maybe his team has made progress that just hasn’t shown itself yet.”

Another says, “That team (Michael Waltrip Racing) is always overrated. It always gets more attention that it deserves. People always predict it’s going to do better than it actually does.”

A rival team owner says, “Truex gets the job done behind the wheel. The team may have to get its act together, but he’s definitely a driver who ought to be winning races.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Always shows up at his home track of Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: A versatile sort, Truex can notch top-5 results on most any type of track ...
Good Sleeper Pick: ... even on the road courses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Bristol, which is surprising considering he runs so well at Dover — a ’roid’d up Bristol.
Insider Tip: Nagging mechanical issues are the one thing holding the Truex/Tryson duo back. Once corrected, they’ll be tough.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 7
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 88
Laps Completed: 10,327
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 45
Races Led: 9
Average Start: 17.1
Average Finish: 18.8
After First 26 Races: 20th
Final Points Standing: 22nd
Driver Rating: 82.2 (19th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Martin Truex Jr. is Athlon's sleeper for 2011. With a year under his belt at Michael Waltrip Racing, expect the promising talent to go Chasing this season.</p>
Post date: Monday, February 7, 2011 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-11-kevin-harvick
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin

Years with current team: 11
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 3rd (2010)

Hometown: Bakersfield, Calif.
Born: December 8, 1975


2011 Spin
The second race of 2011 will mark Kevin Harvick’s 10th anniversary in the seat of the No. 29 at Richard Childress Racing. Harvick was a 25-year-old star in the making in 2001, slated to run the then-Busch Series while learning under the tutelage of men like Dale Earnhardt. The future was unclear for a relative unknown who was never expected to carry the weight of a team on his back.

Harvick was forced into the big leagues in only the season’s second week, though, following the death of Earnhardt, and shocked NASCAR Nation with two victories and a ninth-place points finish.

Now, 10 years later, Harvick retains that role of overachiever, going from the brink of divorce with RCR to championship threat after winning the regular season points title and posting arguably the best all-around season of his career.

The question as 2011 dawns is whether the team he works for still believes in a man whose biting criticism left a lasting impression during the Chase campaign. Ditching his pit crew five races into the postseason, the driver nicknamed “Happy” raised hell over their performance, even going out of his way at Homestead, when asked what he’d do different in the Chase, to proclaim, “I would take the first five (Chase races) back with the pit crew that I had the last five.” That over-the-wall group will stay with Clint Bowyer this year, but everyone has to scratch their heads over Harvick’s often aggressive, Bob Knight-style of putting people in their place through the media and over the team’s radio.

Keep in mind — this driver was shopping Shell/Pennzoil around to other teams, ready to bolt before the sponsor’s April bombshell signing with Penske Racing left him forced to re-sign at RCR. In public, Harvick and Childress say all the right things, although in private their relationship, once deemed irreparable in ’09, remains strained at times. Any hint of a struggle will rip the band-aid off these connections, damage healed only by the joys of on-track success and not personal apology. Crew chief Gil Martin is an expert at handling Harvick’s moody moments, but this team remains a powder keg with a driver unafraid to light the fuse at any time.

On the plus side, Harvick’s passion can be a good thing. The man wants to win so badly you can feel it, and when he channels that passion into driving, he can be unstoppable. With that emotional edge, keeping the consistency found in 2010 will be the No. 29 team’s biggest challenge. Harvick has always been streaky, either a title contender or an also-ran, and he needs to prove he can pick up the pieces of what could have (maybe should have) been his championship season in 2010.

Qualifying continues to be this veteran’s Achilles heel, with two poles in 2010 tempered by 15 starts of 26th or worse. Week in and week out, that’s an awful lot of cars for a driver to pass to get to the front, and it might have made the difference in a Chase competition defined by track position.

The other question mark for the year is sponsorship. When Shell/Pennzoil defected, Childress picked up Budweiser in a multi-year deal, but the long-time NASCAR supporter’s funding is only for 20 races. Jimmy Johns, a longtime sponsor of Harvick’s Nationwide Series cars, will pick up the tab for six additional events, but that leaves 10 with no sponsor on the hood. RCR likely will find the decals to fill the space, but the uncertainty threatens to cause a distraction.

At least this much is known: Childress will not let this team go down in flames. Lest anyone forget its heritage, the small number 3 on the door is an instant reminder of six championships won with Earnhardt. Childress would like nothing more than for this car to return to its former glory. RCR equipment is durable, and Earnhardt-Childress engines have been the gold standard in terms of Cup Series horsepower over the last year.

It’s hard to shake Harvick’s inconsistencies, though, and it’s important to note that he has never put together back-to-back top-5 points finishes. With a volatile personality, 2011 has a feast-or-famine look to it, although even in a worst-case scenario it’s hard to see last year’s regular-season points champion missing the Chase.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Harvick has the style of a champion, or at least a champion back before the Chase was implemented in 2004. “Harvick was always the same, from the start of the season to the finish,” says one prominent observer. “He got the best out of the car and brought it home in one piece.”

Adds a rival crew chief, “You know, I think he’s still trying to find his place in NASCAR. There are times when it almost looks like he sees himself as ‘the enforcer’ of the sport. His style earns the respect of some and the alienation of others. But his numbers and his personality don’t match up. He gets in a lot of scraps, but he always manages to get a decent finish anyway. That’s hard to do.”

Another crew chief says, “Kevin’s one of those guys whose personality and numbers don’t mesh. He seems to get in a lot of scraps, but he’s got that knack to work through them and still get a good finish.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: After some lean years, Harvick has become quite the plate racer.
Pretty Solid Pick: Lots of places, but especially Indy, where he has seven top 10s in 10 starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His 7.9-place average at Homestead is his best, although he has no wins there.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s got an all-star win, but otherwise it’s been pretty ugly at Charlotte.
Insider Tip: Clicked off top 10s even at tracks where he traditionally underperformed in 2010. A good play most weeks.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 16
Top 10s: 26
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 357
Laps Completed: 10,645
Lead Lap Finishes: 32
Bonus Points: 90
Races Led: 16
Average Start: 21.0
Average Finish: 8.7
After First 26 Races: 3rd
Final Points Standing: 3rd
Driver Rating: 98.0 (4th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Kevin Harvick finished third in last season's Chase, but slips to 11th in Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 17:32
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-12-denny-hamlin
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 11 FedEx Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Mike Ford

Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2010)

Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: November 11, 1980


2011 Spin
Sometimes, stats can be deceiving when assessing a driver’s mental state of mind. After a season when your win total equaled the number you had in the previous five years combined, finishing a career-best second in the standings, how would you remember it? On paper, it seems like a reason to throw a party all the way through that speech at the banquet in Las Vegas.

But for Denny Hamlin, he spent that night looking longingly at the head table, shaking his head while lamenting a championship that slipped away. It’s the type of disappointing second-place Chase result that sticks with you, attributable to poor fuel mileage, nerves and poorly timed trash talk. Following his eighth win of the season at Texas, Hamlin took the point lead with just two races left but saw a decision to pit for gas a week later come back to bite him, dropping from second to a 12th-place finish at Phoenix while Jimmie Johnson wound up fifth without stopping. Then, a dismal qualifying effort put him behind the eight ball from the get-go at Homestead, as a week’s worth of verbal pressure in the media from rivals Johnson and Kevin Harvick eventually took their toll.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was not nervous at any point until about an hour before the race,” he said afterwards. “That’s really when it hit me.”

Ninety minutes later, he was spinning off of Greg Biffle’s No. 16 car, and his Chase bid was sinking in the Florida swamp. He left Homestead without the big trophy but armed with plenty of questions about whether or not this team could mount another run at the title in 2011 after wiping out a season’s worth of smiles in one fell swoop. Despite a comeback driver of the year performance, when he recovered from ACL surgery in late March to establish numbers that set the standard at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin’s development from occasional contender to weekly threat to reach Victory Lane means little if momentum has truly died on the vine.

That’s where the last in a trio of poorly timed missteps threatens Hamlin the most for 2011. Crew chief Mike Ford took some swipes at the Chad Knaus-led No. 48 team after Hamlin’s Texas win, knocking a decision from afar on how Hendrick Motorsports swapped pit crews mid-race. Team members at HMS publicly and privately claimed that the comments led to internal motivation, a waking-the-sleeping-giant moment that helped beat back the challenge of the No. 11 for good. Combine that with some ugly quotes from the driver after Phoenix — “I can save fuel pretty well, I did my job” — and his relationship with Ford could become an intriguing subplot this spring. The men aren’t friends off the track, lacking the type of deep bond that typically keeps the Johnson/Knaus type of relationship rolling through thick and thin, and Hamlin knows how much those poor decisions killed their title effort.

Another reason that a repeat run is unlikely is the emotional toll the Chase took on Hamlin himself. Still young, entering only his sixth full-time series of Cup competition, he may not have the experience and maturity to bounce back after such a cruel letdown. Long known for being a driver who thinks with his heart, Hamlin had learned to use his head until the fuel mileage folly seemed to throw his confidence for a loop.

“I have to leave Phoenix in Phoenix,” Hamlin said then, although he later admitted he had not. “That’s the thing is you can’t let this … I couldn’t control it. Things didn’t work out for me. I felt like we’ve been the best car over this Chase, and we might not win it.”

That they didn’t says a lot about the 30-year-old’s psyche, a second-place hangover likely to continue, a la Carl Edwards, who had a similar season (nine wins, runner-up points finish in ’08) turn into a winless disaster in ’09. And notice that Hamlin says things “didn’t work out for me.” Not the team, but “me.” Winning in the Sprint Cup Series takes a team effort. No driver, no matter how talented, can do it alone. That’s why 2011 is setting up as a likely down year for the No. 11 team, one in which they’ll need to mature and grow together again before making another serious title run.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

How did Hamlin fall short in the 2010 Chase? “I think (crew chief) Mike Ford did exactly what Chad Knaus did in 2005, the year before Jimmie Johnson’s streak started,” says one rival crew chief. “They were putting their best stuff back and saving it for the Chase all the way back to the spring. I think Ford studied Knaus and tried to peak for the Chase just like Johnson does every year. Hamlin just couldn’t execute the plan as well as Johnson, that’s all.”

Another crew chief adds, “That’s OK, though. They’ll be better prepared the next time around. Hamlin’s just coming into his own. He’s going to get better. Johnson probably isn’t. How could he?”

“I don’t know whether or not Hamlin won over everybody else, but he certainly proved himself to me,” says a team owner. “He showed a lot of guts driving while he was hurt, recovering from knee surgery, and the fact that he didn’t quite win the championship? As far as I’m concerned, he just lost a coin flip. It could’ve gone either way.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Martinsville and Pocono. Book ’em.
Pretty Solid Pick: The Virginia Ham-lin always steps it up at home in Richmond.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hard to consider Hamlin a sleeper anywhere these days.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has not been a huge threat on the plate tracks, but you know how that can change when the right guy sticks to your bumper.
Insider Tip: He’s recorded a top-5 finish at every track on the circuit in his short career. That should tell you something.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 8
Top 5s: 14
Top 10s: 18
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 1,184
Laps Completed: 10,530
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 125
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 17.2
Average Finish: 12.9
After First 26 Races: 1st
Final Points Standing: 2nd
Driver Rating: 96.2 (5th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Denny Hamlin gave Jimmie Johnson a run for his Chase money in 2010, but tumbles to 12th in Athlon Sports' 2011 Preseason Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 17:29
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-13-jamie-mcmurray
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonald’s Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Teresa Earnhardt
Crew Chief: Kevin “Bono” Manion

Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 11th (2004)

Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976


2011 Spin
During his last two years at Roush Fenway Racing, Jamie McMurray was labeled little more than a lame duck, his career swimming straight into a lake of near irrelevance. However, in his first year back with Chip Ganassi, the Missouri native flourished, claiming victories in two of NASCAR’s biggest races: the season-opening Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.

The owner’s gamble to re-hire McMurray and give him a second chance after the duo had parted ways following the 2005 season paid off with a year that landed both men in the history books. Ganassi became the lone team owner to win those races and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year (and later the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona), while McMurray is only the third driver to earn the two biggest NASCAR trophies. And, somewhat overlooked but notable nonetheless, McMurray chipped in runner-up showings at Talladega, in the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and a third in the Bristol Night Race, proving he and the team were able to step up on the sport’s biggest stages.

“If you were to ask me at the beginning of the season: ‘You could make the Chase or you could win these two races,’ I would have chosen these two,” McMurray said last August, a telling indictment on his lack of consistency. Each victory — including a third triumph at Charlotte in the fall — was followed up with a run outside the top 10, a troubling roller coaster defining a points season that ended with his No. 1 ride outside of the Chase in 14th.

Perhaps it was that sort of up and down result that had rumors swirling that Ganassi was considering a switch from Chevy to Ford. Clearly, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing isn’t at the top of the GM food chain; that distinction belongs to teams like Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Richard Childress Racing. But speculation was put to bed by the end of last season when the announcement was made that ECR was staying with the bowtie boys, an IndyCar partnership in 2012 helping sweeten the deal in order to keep this program in the fold.

Now, the key is to minimize bad days, with McMurray hoping to build on an 18-race streak without a DNF as a sign the organization is over some mechanical and handling miscalculations week-to-week. By Daytona, this team will have achieved much-needed, long-term stability elsewhere. McMurray, as well as sponsors Bass Pro Shops, McDonald’s and others, shored up deals that will keep them with EGR long term. Crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion will be back on the pit box calling the shots, the second half of an extrovert/introvert duo that has the most surprising chemistry on and off the track of any driver/crew chief set. That familiarity will only pay dividends, especially now that McMurray is no longer having to wait for the other shoe to drop like he did at Roush Fenway. The only worry is to keep the adrenaline up this spring; it’s always tricky to avoid a short-term letdown when everyone goes from a possible pink slip to long-term job security.

The decision to stay with Chevy may or may not pan out. EGR may be a bigger fish in the IndyCar pond but remains a relatively small fish in the stock car ranks as a two-car team. There is also the at-times tumultuous relationship with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who certainly didn’t have the type of season he was looking forward to after making the Chase the year before. The former top-level Formula One driver struggled to work together with his overachieving teammate at times last season, but over the long run, they have to find a way to make an awkward marriage work.

So expect McMurray and Co. to be good for another win or two this year, but the trendy pick to make the Chase remains a tricky proposition. There are too many multi-car machines double the size — Gibbs, Hendrick and Childress to name a few — with drivers willing to share information and success all the way into the 10-race playoff.

However, considering the big, flashy wins this team thrives on, will another couple of clutch performances in Victory Lane leave them thinking 2011 was a bad year?
Probably not.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

McMurray clearly has paid his dues and won the respect of most in the garage area. “What a fantastic season,” says one rival crew chief. “McMurray won all the big races. Yeah, sure, he lacks consistency, but that’s still a new program. Jamie went over there and made a huge improvement in that car.”

Another crew chief says, “If you’re not going to make the Chase, that’s certainly the way to do it. He’s earning the big paychecks in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard.”

A third crew chief says, “I think hard times were good for Jamie. When he went through the lean years, I think he learned to appreciate how important it was to be good to those around you. Ever notice how happy his former teammates at Roush (Fenway) are when he wins? That says a lot for him.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: He’s becoming a pied piper of sorts at Daytona and Talladega.
Pretty Solid Pick: Hard to ignore last season’s first- and second-place runs at Charlotte.
Good Sleeper Pick: Third in last year’s Bristol Night Race?! Who saw that coming?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Atlanta, Pocono and Richmond — totally different tracks that share the same anti-McMurray trait.
Insider Tip: Last year was great, but don’t expect another three-win gem out of this bunch — although another plate win is certainly a possibility.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 12
Poles: 4
Laps Led: 346
Laps Completed: 10,603
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 75
Races Led: 15
Average Start: 13.4
Average Finish: 16.4
After First 26 Races: 14th
Final Points Standing: 14th
Driver Rating: 86.5 (13th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Jamie McMurray rides a wave of momentum into the 2011, where he places 13th in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Drvier Countdown.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 10:16
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-14-dale-earnhardt-jr
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)

Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: October 10, 1974


2011 Spin
Something has to give. NASCAR’s perpetual Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has endured three years of mediocrity with the sport’s best team, putting his future in question. With finishes of 25th and 21st in points over the last two seasons, the glory of 18 career victories has faded as some question whether The Intimidator’s son even has the talent to run inside the top 10.

Earnhardt is something of an enigma at Hendrick Motorsports, his tenure defined by flashes of brilliance while looking like he’s in over his head far too often. But he’s not simply the spoiled son of a legend as some now believe. Mediocre drivers don’t achieve top-5 points finishes (three), Daytona 500 victories (one), and over 1,000 laps led in three straight seasons. Earnhardt was once one of the best restrictor plate drivers in the business, putting on clinics on how to drive at Daytona and Talladega, and the stats show success on just about every type of track NASCAR has to offer, sans road courses. Clearly, the talent is there; the driver is just no longer connecting to it.

After an ugly ending to 2010, when Earnhardt’s confidence once again dipped considerably, team owner Rick Hendrick knew more major changes were needed. So out went crew chief Lance McGrew, part of a swap among three teams that saw Earnhardt land with Steve Letarte. Calling Letarte his “people person,” Hendrick thinks the duo’s laid-back personas could prove the perfect fit.

“Letarte and Junior have a relationship. I’m not sure if it’s from online racing or fantasy football,” Hendrick joked last fall before turning serious. “Junior has lot of respect for Steve, and Steve has a lot of insight on Junior because he’s mentioned it to me a couple of times in debriefs. I feel like Dale needs a guy he can communicate with, who has a proven track record and a really great team. (Letarte) knows how to get close to people.”

Getting close to Junior is the ultimate challenge. He can be difficult to communicate with even in the best of times, with the last three years defined by requests for changes that made his car worse. Frustration doesn’t sit well with Earnhardt; once there’s agitation, things can spiral rapidly downhill. Earnhardt needs a delicate balance of cheerleader and taskmaster, one Hendrick hopes he’s found in Letarte, who called the shots for Jeff Gordon in 2010. Gordon and Letarte had an ugly year, defined by poor pit calls that cost them wins. And with former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and Letarte holding similar personalities, is buddy/buddy really the answer for a driver who’s only excelled with a disciplinarian like father figure Tony Eury Sr. on top of the pit box?

The Letarte partnership means Earnhardt moves up the hill at the Hendrick complex this year, taking over what was Gordon’s team and chassis. He and Letarte will be paired with champion teammate Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. The two teams collaborate heavily, and Earnhardt’s driving style is more similar to Johnson’s than former shopmate Mark Martin’s. If the teams can work closely, Earnhardt will benefit from their vast knowledge, a truly enviable position when coupled with the quality of Hendrick chassis and engines.

Despite his woes in 2010, Earnhardt finished all 36 events, the best among the Hendrick stable and a reminder that he still takes care of equipment. Plenty of support remains from sponsors AMP Energy Drink and the National Guard, as well as his huge fan base.

The difficult part will be to sort these changes out quickly. There was little rhyme or reason to Earnhardt’s 2010 season. The only places where he showed real consistency were Daytona and Loudon, two vastly different tracks. The logical place to start will be the intermediate program, but short tracks, road courses and even restrictor plate strategy must be addressed.

The question at Hendrick is how many people still genuinely believe in Earnhardt, whose contract runs through 2012. Clearly, the owner feels he’s now given the driver everything needed to make it work. It’s now a matter of whether Earnhardt’s style is simply a round peg that will never fit inside an organization of Hendrick squares.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The term that best describes Dale Jr. is “stressed out.” “He’s got the world’s biggest monkey on his back,” says a rival crew chief. “(New crew chief) Steve Letarte may help him shed that monkey. Stevie’s good at building confidence, and he may be exactly what Junior needs.”

Another crew chief says, “OK, it’s established that he’s got the ability to win races, so why can’t he do it anymore? The losses have piled up on him. He’s got to find his self-confidence.”

Another says, “I’m not so sure about that. If he’s choking under pressure, then he’s fooling me. I just think you’ve got have the right combination, and he hasn’t really had it since ‘Pops” (Tony Eury Sr.) worked with him. He’s got to find another combination that really works, and half the guys in this sport are in the same boat. It’s nothing like as simple as people on the outside think.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Despite all the plate talk, Richmond is statistically a better play.
Pretty Solid Pick: OK, the plate tracks: Some of the magic is gone, but the ability is still there.
Good Sleeper Pick: He may not win Bristol, but he can still click off top 10s.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Homestead and Infineon are the only tracks where he’s failed to score a top 10.
Insider Tip: The CoT has really thrown Junior for a loop. We’ll see if Steve Letarte’s presence makes a difference.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 8
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 185
Laps Completed: 10,710
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 7
Average Start: 19.0
Average Finish: 18.6
After First 26 Races: 19th
Final Points Standing: 21st
Driver Rating: 75.7 (22nd)
 

Teaser:
<p> Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. clocks in at No. 14 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 10:09
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-15-mark-martin
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Lance McGrew

Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (1990, ’94, ’98, ’02, ’09)

Hometown: Batesville, Ark.
Born: January 9, 1959


2011 Spin
Is the best driver in NASCAR without a title simply a lame duck in 2011? Mark Martin enters his third and final year at Hendrick Motorsports knowing the No. 5 Chevy will be passed to Kasey Kahne in 2012, and historically, that hasn’t been a good omen for drivers. But Martin has been here before — two past retirement announcements (2005-06) never fazed his Roush Racing team, despite knowing the end was near. Now, with what appears to be his last full-time effort finally at hand, Martin enters 2011 just as hungry as he was when he first strapped into a Cup car a full 30 years ago.

Car owner Rick Hendrick says that his commitment to Martin remains unchanged, asserting in a November press conference that the 52 year-old driver would get the same commitment Hendrick has towards the other three teams in his stable. “He’s not getting the short end of the stick,” the owner assured. “He’s going to get all the stick he wants.”

But is that verbal assessment accurate? After ending the season with momentum, reestablishing a special chemistry with head wrench Alan Gustafson that led to five wins and a runner-up points finish in 2009, Martin will start anew in 2011 after Hendrick made sweeping driver/crew chief changes to three of his four cars. Moving over to the former No. 88 stable, Martin gets crew chief Lance McGrew, who has just one Cup Series victory to his credit. In addition, the “new” No. 5 chassis he inherits scored just two top-10 finishes in the last 18 races of 2010, a far cry from the gains the “old” No. 5 team made in scoring two top 10s in its last three races alone.

To be fair, Martin gets reunited with some familiar faces from that ’09 campaign, crew members taken in an effort to kickstart Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s listless tenure at HMS. Most notable is engineer Chris Heroy, reassembling a perfect pairing of technical excellence with the most knowledgeable chassis driver in the sport. And he’ll have a new shopmate in four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who moves into the new “5/24” building on the Hendrick campus. Both veterans, the two should work well together and be able to share information successfully. Durability is also strong, as Hendrick engines caused zero mechanical DNFs for Martin in 2010.

Hendrick’s 10 championships do count for something, allowing a driver with an AARP card to gain funding in a business dominated by young guns. Martin will have sponsorship from CarQuest, Delphi and GoDaddy.com once again along with Quaker State. However, this car’s financial backing remains the worst of the four HMS entries, causing a troublesome hierarchy.

Martin’s best asset as a driver is his ability to win races while driving cleanly — so cleanly, in fact, he was criticized earlier in his career for not being aggressive enough. When push comes to shove, Martin usually doesn’t shove, a philosophy that eliminates controversy. But while that has earned him the respect of the garage, it also causes him to be run over from time to time.

Martin’s success became one-dimensional in 2010, as his best finishes came on flatter tracks like Martinsville, Loudon, Fontana and Phoenix. He’ll need to step up performance on the faster-banked ovals, remastering intermediates while navigating tricky restrictor plate waters.

Another thing to keep in mind: Hendrick has showered the veteran with distractions from the second his “full-time retirement” firmed up. After he signed Kahne in April 2010, his quest to find Kahne a ride led to a three-month inquisition as to whether Martin would step out of Hendrick a year early. Who knows what other bombshells may drop as that team prepares for 2012?

This year is likely Martin’s last, best shot to shed that title of best driver without a championship, but he’ll need all the pieces to come together early and often to make that happen. Otherwise, expect Hendrick to get Kahne on the brain all too quickly through a circus that ends with Martin a retirement sideshow.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Few drivers command more respect than the grand old veteran. “He’s probably the greatest driver never to have won a championship,” says an admirer in the garage. “I don’t know if the shakeup at Hendrick is going to help Mark. Lance McGrew is a sharp guy, but it will depend on the chemistry.”

A crew chief says, “Mark may have more concern for his team than anybody in the sport. He’s one of those guys who knows how to save his equipment. I think that’s a talent most of the younger drivers are never going to have to learn.”

Another says, “No one is more determined. Mark’s that rare driver who races hard every lap but not in a way that ticks everybody else off. Everybody knows where they stand with him.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Dude loves Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: Phoenix has been his best track, statistically, since the advent of the CoT.
Good Sleeper Pick: No wins at Pocono, but he’s a virtual lock for a top 10 twice a year.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Hasn’t won in 51 starts at Daytona. Actually, he did in 2007, but NASCAR (for once) didn’t throw the rag.
Insider Tip: His unequaled chassis knowledge paired with his old engineer, should pay off on the big intermediates this year.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 11
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 148
Laps Completed: 10,646
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 65
Races Led: 12
Average Start: 14.9
Average Finish: 15.3
After First 26 Races: 15th
Final Points Standing: 13th
Driver Rating: 82.8 (16th)
 

Teaser:
<p> NASCAR's wily old vet, Mark Martin, leads his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team into the top 15 of Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 - 11:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-16-kurt-busch
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Steve Addington

Years with current team: 6
Under contract through: 2014+
Best points finish: 1st (2004)

Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.
Born: August 4, 1978


2011 Spin
Look up the word “underrated” in the dictionary and you just might see Kurt Busch’s picture next to it. The older of NASCAR’s two Busch brothers, Kurt is often overshadowed by younger brother Kyle, the ultra-talented but hotheaded sometimes-villain of the Cup Series. But make no mistake — Kurt also has the talent, carrying with it his own baggage of temperamental behavior. Busch blew through NASCAR in his early years like a tornado, leaving damage and frustration in his wake despite winning a championship before calming down through a Penske Racing partnership that began in 2006.

The on-track maturity made him a darkhorse during his three Chase appearances in the last five years. Busch was even a trendy pick to unseat Jimmie Johnson in 2010, but despite a solid rapport with crew chief Steve Addington, he bombed in the playoffs. Some claim Penske’s approach for the 2011 postseason needs to change, with the team failing to roll out the new chassis combinations that Hendrick and, more recently, Gibbs have thrived on late in the year. The organization thinks the “status quo” is better, except that’s not true with the CoT. Every slight innovation on the body, however risky, can translate into precious tenths on the track a driver can’t make up in practice with old equipment.

“We need to get a better balance on the car,” Busch said of his 2011 Dodges. “For us, it comes down to getting the front end to work better in the center of the corner.”

That’s a far more balanced statement than his brother, or even the 2005 version of Kurt, would ever give in the face of failure. In public and on the track, this veteran, by and large, races smarter than he used to, keeping him in the good graces of his competitors. That’s no small thing. Busch has raced with more respect — and been treated with more respect — in recent years than in the past, even in his 2004 championship season.  

This year opens a new chapter of sorts for Busch. He’ll stay with Penske Racing, where he has eight of 22 career wins and at least one each year since joining the organization, moving from the “flagship” No. 2 Miller Lite machine to the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. Don’t think for a second that’s a demotion; Busch is the guy his new backer wanted, spurning Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress to pair with Penske and his automotive empire in April 2010.

The move leaves Busch with a solid formula: strong financial backing, a car owner dedicated to winning, full factory support from Dodge and a technically brilliant crew chief in Addington, who knows a thing or two about high-maintenance drivers. Under the right circumstances, you have a team that can win, and win often.

However, even the new and improved Kurt Busch can be a handful in private. He often berates his crew on the radio and at the shop, and that can spiral easily into a vicious cycle, because when the driver chooses to criticize instead of communicate, the team can’t fix the problem. A strong start to the race is crucial for Busch, as he struggles to recover in events after taking a step backward.

That teamwork approach is something that has been lacking at Penske, whose No. 2 car has been carrying the organization for years. Busch’s teammates are relatively inexperienced in NASCAR, as Brad Keselowski paired a Nationwide title with ineffective performances in Cup last year. Add in Sam Hornish Jr.’s ineptitude, and Busch had one fewer wins (two) than that duo had top-10 finishes (three). With Hornish unsponsored for 2011, trimming down to two cars — the only full-time, fully funded Dodges — could provide too little information. Considering Penske is switching to Chevy engines for its IndyCar program in 2012, it may lead to a change on the stock car side in the future, and distractions within a program that won’t have Daytona on the brain.

Busch enters 2011 as a proven Chase-worthy driver, but also an underrated commodity. He’s got a long row to hoe, as several other teams ramped up performance in late 2010 while Busch’s team grew stagnant. That can’t happen this year. If Busch can find the consistent focus that eluded him last year, he’s a Chase contender — particularly if he can pick up a couple wins in the regular season. If distracted, he’ll be on the outside looking in.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The older Busch brother has had much of his thunder stolen by the younger, but Kurt has earned more respect in the garage. “He’s a past champion,” says another crew chief in the 2009 Chase. “Kurt is a force to be reckoned with as a driver, and last year that team started the season looking like a real contender. It didn’t work out at all in the Chase, but I think Kurt and Steve Addington make a great combination.”

A fellow crew chief says of Addington, “He’s a good crew chief for a veteran driver. Steve’s patient, works hard and knows how to lay down the law if need be. But working with a driver is ‘give and take’ with him, and that kind of crew chief is what Kurt needs.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: Looked particularly strong on the intermediates last year ...
Pretty Solid Pick: ... but is so versatile, it could be the shorts or the flats in 2010.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hasn’t won on a plate track yet, but he’s got a knack for missing the big wreck.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Will have to battle Kansas twice this year.
Insider Tip: Busch manages to collect a couple of wins every year one way or another. His four victories the last two years have come on the 1.5-milers.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 17
Poles: 2
Laps Led: 842
Laps Completed: 10,540
Lead Lap Finishes: 25
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 11.1
Average Finish: 15.3
After First 26 Races: 5th
Final Points Standing: 11th
Driver Rating: 91.0 (10th)
 

Teaser:
<p> The 2011 Athlon Sports Driver Countdown continues with Kurt Busch and new sponsor Shell-Pennzoil. Busch slots in at No. 16 in the preseason predictions.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 - 10:53
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-17-jeff-burton
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier

Years with current team: 8
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 3rd (2000)

Hometown: South Boston, Va.
Born: June 29, 1967


2011 Spin
If 2010 was a season of “almosts” for Jeff Burton, will 2011 be “now or never”? For Burton, time is running short for a championship, and he has a lot of teams to climb over to get there. The 43-year-old is in the final year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing, a make-or-break season in a sport where 40-somethings find the unemployment line in record numbers.

Most frustrating for the garage’s unofficial driver spokesman is a troubling inability to find Victory Lane, an ugly zero during a season when RCR put all three of its cars in the Chase. Burton’s 539 laps led were the highest total for him in four years, but an inability to close the deal headlines a 77-race winless drought, a number that needs to change for him to be considered a serious contender. There was the flat tire at Martinsville in March, running over the air hose at Darlington in May and bad pit calls at Loudon not once, but twice. All these incidents went against Burton’s longtime career philosophy of putting himself in position for victories. Instead, self-inflicted wounds bulldozed the Caterpillar Chevrolet.

“We have to have better pit stops,” he said unequivocally in November. “I have to do a better job at making decisions on the race track. Todd (crew chief Berrier) has got to do a better job at making decisions on the pit box. I really think that we can go fast enough to win the championship next year, but ...”

A trail of “what ifs” haunts a man who once seemed primed and ready to assume the role now filled by Jimmie Johnson. Still, the leader of the RCR organization will once again enjoy a prime opportunity for success. He’ll carry Caterpillar, a longtime NASCAR sponsor whose contract is also up after 2011, on the sides once again. Berrier, in his second season with the No. 31, along with the core crew of mechanics and engineers will also return. If Berrier has a fault, it’s the tendency to tune out a driver’s wishes, but that hasn’t been as big of an issue with the veteran Burton.

The duo also has an organization behind them that knows how to win. Childress backed six championship teams with Dale Earnhardt and has 94 victories over 37 years in the sport as an owner. He remains as committed as ever, and his teams retain the best horsepower in the business with Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines.

Such stability combined with a veteran’s experience usually pays off on-track, where Burton is often given the benefit of the doubt in situations that would have the competition hot under the collar. A Mark Martin-like driver, he’s earned that label from a career of knowing when to use a bumper and when to back off, both literally and figuratively, in his dealings with NASCAR and the competition. In the end, that means consistency, perhaps his greatest asset: Burton has registered four DNFs or fewer in all but two of his last 15 seasons in Sprint Cup. Still “old school,” he drives in a conservative yet effective way that, until five years ago, still worked.

In 2011, though, Burton will need more than a methodical approach to take that final step. With parity among top teams at an all-time high, he’s up against 20 others that can run off a string of victories. No Chase champion has taken the title with fewer than three, a number Burton has never posted during his seven previous years with RCR. It seems a change of philosophy is needed. Burton needs to be more willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if that means making the competition angry. As proven by Jeff Gordon, zero victories and a slew of top-5 finishes aren’t enough to automatically attract the sponsorship and long-term commitments needed to stay in the sport.

Perhaps we got a preview last October that such a change was in order. A scuffle with Gordon at Texas highlighted a Chase in which Burton refused to go down quietly. It was a reminder to anyone watching that he still has the fire and the will to win, and he’ll need that in 2011, because the competition will be stiffer than ever.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Burton is the closest thing NASCAR has to a voice of reason. “He’s one of the drivers I respect the most in the business,” says a crew chief. “Here’s a guy who was struggling and getting up in years, and he rejuvenated his career. Burton’s as mentally tough as they come. RCR has really come back. They’ve got great horsepower, great cars, but I’d be willing to bet some of that improvement came about from having Burton around.”

Another says, “Burton has a great knack for holding things together. He’s a guy who’s been around and really uses all that knowledge, that experience, he’s picked up along the way.”

A third crew chief says, “I don’t think Burton gets enough credit for his driving ability. Most of what you read is about his personality, but he’s as competitive as it gets. He’s definitely one of those drivers who gets the best out of his car.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: A pair of runner-up showings in Dover last season was encouraging.
Pretty Solid Pick: JB has averaged an 11.4-place finish in 28 trips to Darlington. That’s impressive.
Good Sleeper Pick: Could make some early season noise in Sin City. He’s done so twice before.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: One top-5 finish in 17 Infineon starts? No thanks.
Insider Tip: His consistency is unquestioned, but he won’t deliver a ton of wins. A return to 2006-08 form would be nice.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 15
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 539
Laps Completed: 10,556
Lead Lap Finishes: 30
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 16.6
Average Finish: 15.1
After First 26 Races: 8th
Final Points Standing: 12th
Driver Rating: 96.2 (6th)
 

Teaser:
<p> NASCAR veteran Jeff Burton and his Richard Childress Racing team clock in at No. 17 in Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 10:37
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-18-ryan-newman
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 39 U.S. Army/Tornados Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
Owner: Tony Stewart/Gene Haas
Crew Chief: Tony Gibson

Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 6th (2002, ’03, ’05)

Hometown: South Bend, Ind.
Born: December 8, 1977


2011 Spin
As a shy 25-year-old out of Indiana, NASCAR’s introverted intellectual was the sport’s hottest commodity. Ryan Newman won the 2002 Rookie of the Year and followed it with a sophomore season that was anything but a slump, scoring eight wins and an eye-popping 11 poles. It was only a matter of time, it seemed, until the Purdue graduate reached the top with powerhouse Penske Racing. Surely, he would win a title before 2002’s rookie runner-up, Jimmie Johnson. Right?

Fast-forward to 2011, and the now-33-year-old Newman has seen those tables turn. As Johnson has risen to the pinnacle of success, Newman is searching for the right direction on his career GPS. The only thing remaining red hot about this man is his temper, as Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne found out during awkward post-race confrontations last fall.

As he enters his third year with Stewart-Haas Racing, putting a cap on that frustration seems to be the key to Newman’s future. After two ugly Talladega wrecks in two years, he’s gone on a personal crusade against plate racing, hammering NASCAR to the point that it levied a “secret fine” against Newman that publicly embarrassed both sides. At least in public, the enjoyment he sought so desperately upon leaving Penske in 2008 has eluded him.

“I told Tony, ‘I’m here to have fun. I want to have fun with you,’” he said in 2009. “That’s what racing hasn’t been a whole lot of for me lately due to the fact we had success in ’02, ’03, part of ’04, and since then it hasn't been as successful. I look forward to having fun again.”

Will those days ever come? SHR initially breathed new life into Newman, when he jumped to ninth in points his first year in the No. 39. However, inconsistency, combined with handling horrors, relegated his 2010 finish to 15th. Getting back to the top from there won’t be easy, simply because of his place in the pecking order. One could argue he’s sixth on a totem pole of chassis and engine alliances between four-car Hendrick Motorsports and two-car team SHR.

The man is smart enough to know his nemesis: inconsistency. Even in that brilliant 2003 campaign he fell victim to it, collecting 22 top-10 finishes that were offset by finishes of 22nd or worse in 11 others, including seven DNFs, and that ugly pattern remains.

So what does Newman have going for him? For starters, he and Stewart may be the closest set of teammates in the business. They work well together, and Newman was widely credited with the boss’ shocking 2010 summer turnaround. Second, Hendrick Motorsports’ hand-me-down equipment still holds its value. After all, HMS has produced six championships in the last decade, so the leftovers are certainly going to taste better.

Newman is also a mechanical engineer who understands how racecars work. Drivers have become specialized, and many have never poked their heads under the hood on their own cars like the rough ’n’ tumble sort of years gone by. Not only can Newman turn a wrench, he can also thoroughly analyze a car’s performance, maintaining a wealth of chassis knowledge.

But brain cells can’t substitute for cold, hard cash, and Newman’s team had to rely on co-owner Gene Haas’ automation company for funding in several 2010 events. That scenario will happen again, with Haas picking up at least a dozen races along with the U.S. Army’s 15 and Tornados’ half dozen (to be fair, the organization maintains that this car is financially sound). It’s not that his sponsors don’t back Newman 100 percent — it’s a worry that he doesn’t have sponsorship 100 percent of the time.

If he and crew chief Tony Gibson can get out of the starting gate quickly, they could surprise. Gibson is a veteran of nearly 30 years and no stranger to winning, having worked with Jeff Gordon and Alan Kulwicki in title runs.

Newman has something to prove in 2011. Competitive at both short tracks and flat intermediates, he must step up at both the banked 1.5-milers and plate tracks that prove disastrous for him. Mainly, though, Newman needs consistency to kick this career out of neutral.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Stardom is slip-sliding away from Newman. “I think this is a big year for Newman and for his future with Stewart-Haas,” says a prominent crew chief. “I think he needs a good solid year — more than one win, make the Chase — or else he’s going to grow weary of playing second fiddle to Tony Stewart.”

“Remember,” says another, “Ryan Newman is the guy who beat out Jimmie Johnson for Rookie of the Year in 2002. You’ll never get Newman to admit it, but I think, at some level, that eats at him.”

A team owner says, “If he decides he wants to move along again, and I certainly don’t think he has, but he’ll find another good ride because, quite simply, he’s talented. There aren’t many people out there who ever won eight races in a single year (2003). And, by the way, Tony Stewart ain’t one of them.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: No wins at Darlington yet, but Newman has eight finishes of ninth or better in 12 starts.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s a top-10 performer at Bristol.
Good Sleeper Pick: Not known for his road-racing prowess, but in actuality, the results aren’t bad.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The Brickyard hasn’t made for a good home-track advantage for this Hoosier.
Insider Tip: Top 10s are always a possibility with Newman, but the wins are becoming fewer and fewer.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 14
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 63
Laps Completed: 10,522
Lead Lap Finishes: 28
Bonus Points: 40
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 11.9
Average Finish: 15.7
After First 26 Races: 13th
Final Points Standing: 15th
Driver Rating: 82.2 (18th)
 

Teaser:
<p> Athlon Sports' 2011 Driver Countdown marches on, with the U.S. Army's Ryan Newman and his No. 39 team in at No. 18.</p>
Post date: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-19-juan-pablo-montoya
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 42 Target Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Teresa Earnhardt
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie

Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2011+
Best points finish: 8th (2009)

Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
Born: September 20, 1975

2011 Spin
After making a surprising leap into the ranks of the Chase in 2009, Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 42 team had targeted another bid in 2010, but came up far short of that goal despite a career year from teammate Jamie McMurray. How did the world’s fastest Colombian win last year’s Fallback 500? One quick glance at the stat sheet gives an easy answer. In ’09, Montoya was running at the end of all 36 races. Last year, he failed to finish eight. So why the big difference? Bad luck? Faulty equipment? Over-aggression? Or is Montoya still feeling growing pains adjusting to stock car racing?

The first two are racing obstacles any driver has to deal with, so that doesn’t set Montoya apart. His talent is undeniable; the former open-wheel veteran acclimated himself to big, beefy stock cars sooner than most thought he would as evidenced by his two wins and five poles in his relatively brief career. So that leaves over-aggression as the culprit in the decline.

At times, Montoya’s emotions continue to cause distractions, and he doesn’t act in his best interests on the track and off it when dealing with his fellow Sprint Cup drivers.
One in particular is his teammate, McMurray. The two have a history, stemming from an incident at Bristol a couple years back that makes them NASCAR’s version of The Odd Couple. Things got so bad at Las Vegas in late February after McMurray caused both of them to wreck that Montoya’s wife tweeted in Spanish that McMurray was driving like a giant chicken. But like it or not, they have to find a way to co-exist, as each one is expected to stay over the long term.

McMurray is not the only driver on Montoya’s “hit list,” either. There was an on-track brouhaha with Mark Martin at Chicago, where Montoya offered to give Martin driving lessons. And there was the ugly season-finale when he made contact with Joey Logano. That ended with Montoya getting wrecked under caution in a burst of retaliation. Of course, when you talk to the man he’ll often say none of those incidents was his fault. But bottom line: A driver with a “take no prisoners” attitude has been taking himself out all too often in the process.

“(In 2009), we made the Chase,” he said last October. “This year, we had a lot of wrecks. I think we had the speed to make it, but we didn’t and it’s a bit of a shame. It is what it is.”

The problem with those comments is there’s seemingly no initiative on Montoya’s part to change either his style of driving or his attitude. It’s a worst-case scenario for a team that needs its driver to recognize mistakes — the ugly truth that with eight, nine, 10 wrecks per season, you can’t be the innocent victim in every one.

Montoya’s poor performance is even more shocking when you consider how well he qualifies. An 11.6-average start trailed only Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch in 2010. The No. 42 car once qualified eighth or better in 11 consecutive races, but in that same stretch, finished only two of those in a higher spot — once in winning at Watkins Glen, the other a seventh-place finish after starting eighth at Bristol.

On the plus side, the team enjoys stability from Chevrolet, spurning Ford for 2011, while crew chief Brian Pattie leads a talented returning group of over-the-wall veterans. And just 35, Montoya should be at, or slowly reaching, his prime.

Going forward, the big question seems to be whether Montoya can let his racing do the talking, not his mouth or emotions. Wrecked racecars and tirades certainly aren’t going to put points on the stat sheet, after all. How he handles the adversity will be a gauge on whether or not 2009’s Chase appearance was a sign of things to come or simply a flash in the pan.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Montoya is as highly regarded for his talent — no, his brilliance — in NASCAR as he was in Indy cars and Formula One. But the results haven’t been there. “No one has bad luck all year,” says a crew chief. “It all evens out, but not for Juan Pablo. He won a race, but it was on a road course and that’s where he’s supposed to win. His talent is undeniable, but I’m not sure his judgment has improved in four years. A stock car racer has to learn how to pick his spots, and I’m not sure Montoya ever will.”

Another says, “God, I could watch that guy race all day every week. I can’t tell you why he doesn’t win more. He’s not your typical road racer come to NASCAR. He’s got the skill to win at any track.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: The roadies, of course.
Pretty Solid Pick: JPM has gotten pretty good at playing chess on the plate tracks.
Good Sleeper Pick: Atlanta, where that Earnhardt-Childress horsepower pays dividends.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Vegas, one of only two tracks (Homestead being the other) where Montoya has not notched a top 10.
Insider Tip: After two near misses, he’s going to get a Brickyard trophy soon.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 6
Top 10s: 14
Poles: 3
Laps Led: 411
Laps Completed: 10,217
Lead Lap Finishes: 22
Bonus Points: 95
Races Led: 17
Average Start: 11.6
Average Finish: 18.0
After First 26 Races: 16th
Final Points Standing: 17th
Driver Rating: 90.9 (11th)

Teaser:
<p> Jaun Pablo Montoya slots in at 19th in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Monday, January 31, 2011 - 10:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-20-brad-keselowski
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
Owner: Roger Penske
Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe

Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 25th (2010)

Hometown: Rochester Hills, Mich.
Born: February 12, 1984

2011 Spin
NASCAR 2010 was the rebirth of the Bad Boy in NASCAR, and right at the forefront of the “Boys, Have at It” movement was one Brad Keselowski. The second-generation racer from Michigan has had some noteworthy tangles in his short career, including scuffles with some of Sprint Cup’s biggest stars in Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. That he isn’t afraid to stare down anyone in the sport is both a bane and blessing for the 26-year-old, who roars into 2011 with the confidence of a Nationwide Series title under his belt.

“That championship lays a foundation for success,” he says of succeeding in the second-tier division. “It’s a brand of excellence that carries way more than just your own confidence or even ability. It carries into attracting and keeping top talent that can help you get to (the next) level in Cup.”

That on-track development, combined with a fiery independence, allows Keselowski not to be pushed around on the racetrack, unlike talented young peer Joey Logano. He isn’t going to back down if there is a win to be had, and that could be a huge advantage for Keselowski as he moves into the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge this year — a ride that has been piloted by known hotheads for 20 seasons. After being driven by Rusty Wallace and Kurt Busch, the Blue Deuce is almost expected to be at the center of something big.

On the other hand, Keselowski isn’t making a lot of friends, and that can get lonely fast in the Cup Series. It also paints a target on his back, and, deserved or not, that’s not something that helps a guy get a great points finish. The wreckers or checkers philosophy will win some races, but it rarely brings season-long success in a Cup Series where consistency is as important as ever. Aggression requires a certain measure of give-and-take, and Keselowski hasn’t yet mastered the “give” part of the equation. His five DNFs in 2010 — all for wrecks — were more than double the two top-10 finishes he recorded.

What he does have going for him in 2011 is a dedicated sponsor and car owner. The Miller Brewing Company has as much tenure as any sponsor in the sport, and as an organization, Penske Racing has enjoyed 58 NASCAR wins with two teams in the last 20 seasons.

Also in his favor is the promotion of his NNS crew chief, Paul Wolfe, to the Cup operation. The chemistry between the two is unmistakable — the Nationwide title is proof of that — and Wolfe is viewed as one of the can’t-miss up and coming crew chiefs in the garage. As an added bonus, Penske’s motors have been some of the most durable in NASCAR in recent years (the organization suffered only a single engine failure in 2010).

Dodge is also dedicated, albeit shorthanded in the number of teams it supports. The manufacturer has all its eggs in Penske’s basket, although the future partnership of the two can be questioned with Penske’s upcoming Chevy commitment in IndyCar. Finally, the fact that Penske took team-building advice from Keselowski when he arrived from the Hendrick fold says a lot for the driver’s level of talent and understanding of what makes a team successful. The Nationwide program, an expanded workforce in the shop and engineering improvement can all be attributed to Keselowski’s consistent nagging to change the team’s internal culture.

Now, it’s time for the driver himself to mature. His hot temper puts him in some bad situations. One such incident last year came at Atlanta, where a perceived slight of Edwards resulted in Keselowski’s launching into a spectacular airborne flip.

One thing that needs to be questioned is Keselowski’s commitment to a full Nationwide Series schedule in 2011 — regardless of the rules. Historically, this has hurt drivers’ Cup efforts more than it’s helped, and in Keselowski’s case, some festering feuds have had their roots in that series. While a few double-duty drivers have successfully made the Chase, they haven’t won Cup titles. And with the Miller Lite backing carrying sky-high expectations with it, Keselowski may need to make a decision in the near future about where his dedication lies, for 2011 will be a season in which he is tested at NASCAR’s top level — and he needs to pass.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Everyone is waiting for Keselowski to become regularly competitive in Sprint Cup. “It seems really important to Keselowski that he assert himself,” says a crew chief, “and that gets him in a lot of trouble at the Sprint Cup level. He’s got what it takes to be a championship contender, but I think he’s just got to learn to be at home and comfortable in Cup. It’s hard to say whether his struggles are driver or car, but my suspicion is that it’s car. Another year might make all the difference in the world.”

Another crew chief says, “He’s made some enemies by sort of acting like, ‘Hey, I’m not taking nothing off nobody,’ but now he’s got to realize, OK, he’s shown everybody he’s got some toughness. Now he’s got to settle down and act like he belongs.”


Fantasy Stall
Looking at Checkers: The plate tracks — particularly Talladega.
Pretty Solid Pick: The more physical the better. Watch him at Bristol and Martinsville.
Good Sleeper Pick: Surprisingly, the youngster runs well at Darlington. Not many do.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not surprisingly, he’s still got a way to go to hang with the Cup boys on the road courses.
Insider Tip: He’s still learning the ropes and the team is still coming together. Use in select events only.


2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 2
Poles: 1
Laps Led: 41
Laps Completed: 10,410
Lead Lap Finishes: 16
Bonus Points: 30
Races Led: 6
Average Start: 23.0
Average Finish: 22.4
After First 26 Races: 26th
Final Points Standing: 25th
Driver Rating: 65.1 (26th)

Teaser:
<p> Second-year Cup driver Brad Keselowski kicks off the top 20 in Athlon Sports' 2011 NASCAR Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Monday, January 31, 2011 - 10:19
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-21-kasey-kahne
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 4 Red Bull Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
Crew Chief: Kenny Francis

Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2014 with Hendrick Motorsports
Best points finish: 8th (2006)

Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980

2011 Spin
Perhaps Kasey Kahne should start seeking sponsorship from U-Haul, since he’s been doing a lot of moving in recent months, and another big move is on the horizon. A disgruntled Kahne, given a contentious release from Richard Petty Motorsports last October, will have only one year to build on a five-race stint with Red Bull Racing that ended last season.

Kahne’s future plans have already been announced; he was signed to replace Mark Martin at the No. 5 seat at Hendrick beginning in 2012 before a rare agreement with Red Bull Racing was reached. That leaves RBR as a temporary stop on the way to arguably the sport’s best team, a partnership where keeping all sides distraction-free will be a challenge.

“I see what Red Bull’s all about,” claimed Kahne after surprising with a pole at Homestead in last season’s finale. “I see how they do it. They have really good people. It’s just a matter of a little bit of direction, some leadership, and we’re working on that. We can be a strong team next year.”

One development tops the list of fixes: Kahne is reunited with crew chief Kenny Francis, who also made the exit from RPM, and they will be joined by several other teammates who were laid off from that downsizing company. The return of veteran leader Brian Vickers to RBR should also rejuvenate the effort, which suffered without him. Jay Frye is also a solid and respected GM, excellent at making the most out of modest resources.

Overall, the dedication and financial support are a far cry from RPM, where it never seemed the money and equipment were fully behind Kahne for much of his tenure. But considering the short stint at RBR, can this guy keep his attitude adjusted should things go wrong early? How he left the No. 9 team was ugly at best — a third brake failure caused Kahne to crash at Charlotte and leave the track before repairs were made to his Ford. Kahne said he wasn’t feeling well, but what led to his release was the fact that he was essentially caught in a lie, running in a 5K charity race the next morning.

So will Kahne flourish in his one-year stint with RBR? Don’t hold your breath. He’s heading to a different team that runs a different manufacturer — his third in three years — so the depth of knowledge shared may not be adequate for large-scale success. They may eke out a win or two, due to Kahne’s talent alone, which could conceivably net them a wild card Chase berth, but nothing more.


What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

The recurring phrase with Kahne is “lots of talent.” A rival crew chief notes, “What happens to Kasey next year bears watching because it’s not something that happens very often. He’s sort of being farmed out to Team Red Bull for one year, and nobody really knows how that’s going to work. I think (crew chief) Kenny Francis showed a lot of professionalism. Distraction is a potential issue, since this whole arrangement will close at the end of the 2011 season.”

Another crew chief says, “You’ve just got to wonder when, or if, things are ever going to work out for this guy. He’s got great talent. He’s a proven winner. He’s had more than his share of bad luck in things falling apart around him, but yet, he hasn’t had a thing to do with any of it.”

A third says, “It’s hard to believe, but right now, I think Kasey Kahne is actually underrated.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 36
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 10
Poles: 4
Laps Led: 350
Laps Completed: 10,309
Lead Lap Finishes: 21
Bonus Points: 60
Races Led: 10
Average Start: 13.5
Average Finish: 18.9
After First 26 Races: 18th
Final Points Standing: 20th
Driver Rating: 82.8 (15th)

Teaser:
<p> Kasey Kahne makes a one-year stop at Red Bull Racing before moving on to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Athlon Sports has Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis leading the newly re-christened No. 4 team to a 21st-place spot in the the 2011 Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 28, 2011 - 11:23
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/nascar-news-notes/no-22-brian-vickers
Body:

2011 Driver Countdown

No. 83 Red Bull Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
Crew Chief: Ryan Pemberton

Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2012
Best points finish: 12th (2009)

Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: October 24, 1983

2011 Spin
After a thrilling entrance into the 2009 Chase, Brian Vickers and his Red Bull Racing team had their sights set on a return to the playoffs in 2010 — but that was before fate intervened. Just 11 races into last season, Vickers was hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs and left leg. A pulmonary embolism caused by a hole in his heart would keep the 26-year old out of the No. 83 the remainder of the season.

Now, following a nine-month absence after recovering from open-heart surgery, Vickers is set to return to racing. “(Doctors) gave me full clearance for next year,” Vickers optimistically stated during a visit to Bristol Motor Speedway in August. “I will be back in (2011). I’m real excited about that. They feel I’m probably in the best shape of my life.”

But what shape will the team he was forced to leave be in when he makes his return?

Vickers will encounter a familiar face in crew chief Ryan Pemberton, who guided him to his first Chase berth in ’09 and to three top 10s in his brief, incomplete performance in 2010. Beyond that, there are plenty of new faces he’ll find in the Red Bull shop.

Gone is teammate Scott Speed, which isn’t much of a loss after another year of struggles, with Kasey Kahne hired to replace him. The addition of a teammate like Kahne in normal circumstances would be considered a welcomed addition, but this is a one and done deal for Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis, as both move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012. That will put continued instability and distraction into a Red Bull team that already had its share in 2010. The two-car organization combined for only three top 10s in Vickers’ absence, a rocky merry-go-round of driver disappointments that raise serious questions as to how quickly a rebound can occur.

With Vickers likely to be a bit rusty after a prolonged period away from the sport and Kahne’s departure already set in stone, look for this year to be another rebuilding one for Vickers and a No. 83 team that once had a bright future ahead of it. Once he gets in a groove, Vickers could again compete for a win here or there, but a return to Chase form so quickly appears to be a tall order.

What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.

Vickers’ return — he missed most of the season because of a medical problem involving blood clots that required heart surgery to correct — carries with it some uncertainty. One rival thinks the presence of Kenny Francis as teammate Kasey Kahne’s crew chief will have a positive effect on the whole Team Red Bull operation. “Francis will bring a lot to that whole operation, Brian included,” he says. “Vickers can drive a car as loose as anyone. He’s got a lot of talent. We’ll have to see how the time off affected him. It’s really a shame because, a year ago, it seemed as if he was coming into his own.”

Another crew chief says, “I don’t think the layoff is going to be a problem. Brian’s still young (27), he’s won races, he’s made the Chase (2009), and he’s dedicated to what he does for a living. He had a tough break. He’ll be back.”

2010 Stats
Starts: 11
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 0
Top 10s: 3
Poles: 0
Laps Led: 27
Laps Completed: 3,510
Lead Lap Finishes: 6
Bonus Points: 15
Races Led: 3
Average Start: 21.6
Average Finish: 20.0
Final Points Standing: 40th

Teaser:
<p> Brian Vickers missed a large part of last season, but returns to NASCAR competition with a clean bill&nbsp; of health in 2011. Vickers slots in at No. 22 in Athlon Sports' Top 30 Driver Countdown.</p>
Post date: Friday, January 28, 2011 - 11:12
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR
Path: /columns/garage-talk/whats-points
Body:

NASCAR point changes underwhelm, miss mark

by Matt Taliaferro

Color me underwhelmed. And just a bit confused.

Ending weeks of speculation, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced changes to the sport’s points structure and Chase to the Championship format in a press conference at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday evening.

Chief among the changes is a revamped season-long points structure that awards 43 points to the race winner, 42 to second and decreasing to one point for the 43rd-place finisher. Drivers will also be rewarded a one-time-only, one-point bonus for leading a lap, one for the driver leading the most laps and a three-point bonus to the winner. Added up, the winner of any race can earn a max of 48 points.

As for NASCAR’s controversial 10-race Chase for the Championship, France laid out a new qualification system, wherein the top 10 in Sprint Cup points will make the Chase, but in an interesting wrinkle, the final two slots will now be filled by the drivers within the top 20 not already qualified with the most wins. Any ties will be broken by virtue of points earned.

Seeding for the Chase will again be based on number of wins, but qualified drivers will now be separated by three points instead of 10. The two "wild card" drivers that earned spots in the Chase will not be awarded bonus points for wins.

France initially stressed winning — as in drivers battling for weekly wins — as a driving force behind the changes.

"The fans have been clear, though, about one thing: They care about winning," France stated. "They don't want drivers to just be content with a good points day or a good run."

However, when prompted in a Q&A with the media afterward, he implied that Goal No. 1 was simplicity in understanding how drivers are rewarded points, not winning.

"This is a goal ... the most important reason is simplicity," he said. "And this allows us a way to communicate the standings. This is a very, I think, straightforward way to do that.

"We didn't make a fundamental change on winning. We've always had a balance, and we like that. We didn't want to change it too much. We have to be cautious. We still have 43 cars racing out there. We can't measure things just on wins alone."

NASCAR President Mike Helton echoed the latter sentiment, telling reporters that a balance must be struck between winning and consistency throughout a long 36-week season. And in the sanctioning body’s view, a possible six-point cushion between first- and second-place finishers on a weekly basis combined with two Chase slot filled by virtue of wins alone accomplishes that goal.

OK, fair enough. The win-and-you’re-in Chase wild cards discourage just being satisfied with "good points days." But the 43-1 points format, when closely examined, does not award winning any more than the former Latford system. In fact, it penalizes a bad day more than rewarding a good one. And isn’t encouraging drivers to race all-out for wins the real way to attract a television audience? After all, it’s all about winning at the end of the day. Always has been.

And at what point since the Latford system was instituted in 1975 has simplicity been an issue? It certainly has not been a sticking point with fans over the last few turbulent seasons that witnessed NASCAR implement a playoff-style title format that coincided with plunging television ratings and decreased at-track attendance. Was the Latford system antiquated? Yes, but antiquated and confusing have totally different meanings, and at no point has an uproar from the fanbase or media been focused on not understanding how points were paid.

France, though, cited the NASCAR Fan Council’s input and the sanctioning body’s perception that a tight points battle in 2010 was difficult to follow and explain.

"We definitely communicated with our Fan Council," he said. "And listen, we saw with Denny (Hamlin), Jimmie (Johnson), Kevin (Harvick), through (last) fall, you needed a mathematician at the end, and you still might to some degree. But it was complicated to follow that. You knew somebody was behind and whatever. This will be easier for our fans and for our announcers and others in the booth to cover what is at stake at any given time during a race or the season."

The mathematician quip is a gross overstatement, of course. Points between the three competitors were compiled and relayed in real time throughout the telecast of the final race at Homestead. Viewers don’t need a calculator when the numbers are presented to them and change instantaneously as cars make up or lose ground.

No, this restructuring is about NASCAR making a third tweak to the points system in eight years — a staggering number for any sport at any level — simply because it can (or cannot, as in "cannot quit tinkering"). Fans didn’t ask for an overhaul to the point system, they asked for a refined schedule, shorter races, an emphasis on winning, better television coverage and a close examination of whether the Chase was needed at all.

Instead, the fans — the true fans that have remained loyal despite a plethora of poor decisions made by the governing body over the last decade — had more unwanted change forced upon them. It was change directed at bringing in the coveted 18-34 year old demographic, not appeasing the loyalists that NASCAR so dearly needs. It was change along the lines of what took Darlington’s Labor Day date and blurred the lines between a brand-specific car and a "spec" machine. It was change directed at attracting a new breed of fan. And it was these changes that precipitated the most turbulent years the sport has experienced in decades.

So color me underwhelmed, because a premium could have been placed on winning and was not. And color me confused, because I cannot understand how the leadership of the sport has not learned from its mistakes of the last 10 years.

But I’m sure Larry McReynolds can explain to me the positive aspects of change for the sake of change, where illusion is more important than tangible progress.

Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattTaliaferro

Teaser:
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Post date: Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 10:59

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